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Book Review: FINDING BABA YAGA by Jane Yolen

Most books are really intended to be read once, only. The parts play out in a single direction, and the twists twist and the turns turn and by the end, all the accumulated surprises and insights converge into a single point of light. Jane Yolen did not compose that sort of thing. Finding Baba Yaga is the kind of book that leaves more questions than answers and rewards both careful, close reading and repeated visitations to the players on the stage. The book takes the form of a long series of poems, with dense and intense lines. Yolen is an acclaimed author of so many books and so much poetry that it is hard to keep count. Her decades of expertise crafts deft, little lines that refuse to budge. They grab the eye and demand a little dwelling together, a little time spent reflecting.

The book itself is modernist folklore, calling the mythic figore of Baba Yaga into a hybrid world of modern framing, but still girls run off to castles to marry princes. Natasha escapes an abusive household, with a domineering father that would wash her mouth out with soap for saying a naughty word. When she runs away, she gets lost in the woods, and is saved by Baba Yaga. If she had been a boy, Baba Yaga would have eaten the lost child. Of course, it makes sense that Baba Yaga would eat the boys, and spare the girls. (The world eats girls, after all.) It is a life of much work and the lingering fear of the witch’s displeasure. Yet, Baba Yaga celebrates the sharp-tongued and the ill-temper of young women, as long as they still get the work done. When another girl, a beautiful blonde girl named Vasilisa, arrives to join Natasha and Baba Yaga, the balance of the house shifts palpably. Natasha awakens to a desire she did not realize she had, and then Vasilisa leaves to marry a Prince that seems to arrive from a different book, entirely.

Vasilisa is Baba Yaga’s daughter, and the mystery of how she came to be is as enigmatic as the origin of Baba Yaga, herself, but the bitter rejection felt by Baba Yaga when her daughter chooses the Prince and a different fairy tale than her own within which to reside seems to be enough of an origin story for Baba Yaga, in her way. The witch of the woods is the one who is left behind.

And, Natasha has learned and learned and learned what it takes to stay there, in the woods, for the cycle to renew.

It’s a fascinating and difficult and enjoyable thing, a book like few others, and it invites a constant return. My advice is to get the paperback, because thumbing through the pages for the pleasures therein is much easier and much more enjoyable with the print edition versus the electronic one. I wish it was a fancy hardback, honestly.

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