June 05, 2008


In Mozart’s Shadow: His Sister’s Story. By Carolyn Meyer. Harcourt. $17.

Thumbelina, Tiny Runaway Bride. By Barbara Ensor. Schwartz & Wade. $12.99.

      The protagonist of one of these books is real, that of the other fictional, but both authors treat their subjects with considerable caring and sensitivity. In Mozart’s Shadow is a semi-biography, semi-historical novel about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s highly talented older sister, Nannerl, who performed duets with him when both were children but who faded into obscurity in later years, hemmed in both by the expectations of society and by her brother’s utterly astonishing genius. Carolyn Meyer is no musician – indeed, she discusses Mozart’s works only as a way to indicate the times at which various events happen in Nannerl’s life – but she is a writer of real warmth, casting the book (which is written in the first person) as Nannerl’s look back at what became of her life and what might have become of it if the times and her autocratic father, Leopold, had been different. “My keyboard technique was already excellent [in childhood],” Meyer has Nannerl write, “and I worked diligently to improve it even more. There was a difference, though: I worked hard, always pushing myself, but music poured effortlessly – almost magically – out of my brother’s mind, heart, and hands.” This observation accords with historical reality, as indeed do many of the specific events in the book: numerous Mozart letters have survived, and are an excellent source of biographical information on the composer, although much less so on his sister. Indeed, Nannerl sees herself, as a woman (who would not be able to make a career out of keyboard playing in her time), pushed again and again into the background, and even kept from personal happiness by her father, whose word was law when it came to matters of travel, career and marriage – denying her the chance to wed the man she loves, then pushing her to marry one she does not. “You are a superlative clavier player, but you’re not a great singer, Nannerl!” her brother says at one point. “The archbishop didn’t send you to study because he would not have considered hiring a female clavier player, no matter how talented.” Nannerl, after tossing some blame for her situation back at Wolfgang, then observes, “I do understand it’s Papa who’s the real cause of my disappointment. And now he’s forbidden me to marry Armand.” Nannerl eventually gains a small musical triumph, within her own family, only after Wolfgang’s death, in one of many scenes created by Meyer to try to show readers how a talented young woman might have felt when she had so few options in life. Teenage girls of a musical bent will find In Mozart’s Shadow an affecting, sad story of a life largely wasted by modern standards because it was lived in conformity with those of an earlier age.

      Thumbelina, Tiny Runaway Bride is more of a romp and is intended for younger readers – ages 7-11 – but it too is a story told with considerable sensitivity, as indeed is the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale on which Barbara Ensor’s book is based. And this tale too contrasts the expectations of an earlier time with those of today. The basic events of the original story are all there, from the young girl grown from a witch’s barley seed to her adventures in the real world and near-marriages to Mr. Toad and Mr. Mole. Ensor creates wonderful illustrations for the book by cutting up black paper with scissors – the same technique that Andersen liked to use to illustrate his stories. But Ensor adds a flavor of her own to Thumbelina’s tale, and not just in the title. There are letters and diary entries throughout the book (Thumbelina calls her diary “Dot”), typeset in handwriting-like style, in which Thumbelina explains her feelings far more thoroughly than the original Andersen character ever did. Also, Ensor gives names and nicknames to various characters: Thumbelina’s mother calls her “Tulip” and “Petal,” the toad is named Sylvester, and so on. And Ensor paints scenes more vividly than Andersen (who was writing a different sort of story) ever did: “The odd sight of a tiny human being drifting down the river on a lily pad began to attract attention from every direction. Butterflies flitted toward her. Birds sitting on nests craned their necks to see. A spider, too shy to stare openly, gave Thumbelina a sidelong glance as she pretended to study her web for flies.” The result of Ensor’s work is a reconsideration and broadening of the Thumbelina tale into one of discovery and wonder, with her eventual meeting with the tiny King of the Flowers as charming as in Andersen’s original – except that Ensor then strikes a note that is intended as modern and liberating but that some readers (certainly those who know the original story) will find jarring. She decides to have Thumbelina decide not to marry the king, because she does not love him – instead, Thumbelina returns home to live with her mother. Happy ending? Happier than Andersen’s? That may depend on who is reading Ensor’s book and in what context. Certainly this is a charming work; whether a reader thinks the ending smacks of modern-day political correctness will determine how charming it turns out to be.

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