Grocery store pumpkins are at high tide, and the aisles are stuffed with bags of fun-sized candy. Shorter days are bringing windy nights, apple cider, and scary stories told by the fire. In celebration of the season, we declare this “Crone Appreciation Week” here at Fiction Unbound.
Baba Yaga is the archetypal crone. She is a slavic legend, an old woman, probably immortal, with iron teeth, who lives in a house that walks about on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence of human bones. She flies in a mortar, the kind you grind herbs in, steering it with a pestle. Sometimes there’s a broom involved to sweep away her tracks. She’s rumored to eat children, but only little boys (that’s one way to smash the patriarchy).
Baba Yaga wins our Crone of the Year Award, as well as our hearts. It was little contest, given her unwavering iron nose, iron will, and commitment to shaping the female leaders of tomorrow. Jane Yolen’s updated novel-in-verse about the archetypal crone, Finding Baba Yaga, is well-timed to come out on October 30th, at the height of the season of the witch.
CS Peterson: Baba Yaga stories often begin with a young person wandering from home and losing their way in the woods. Yolen updates the legend by beginning with Natasha, a contemporary teen, running away from a deeply dysfunctional life at home. There is no Hansel and Gretel romance here. Natasha spends days and nights sleeping rough, as a homeless runaway. The reality of her situation is gritty and hopeless. Things get better when Natasha turns off the beaten road and enters the woods. But beware, as Yolen warns in the poems that bookends her novel:“You think you know this story. You do not.”
The line starts off a little like the bride’s rhyme of what to wear: “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” But blue is missing in Yolen’s verse. All sorts of fairy tale expectations veer off to take different paths in this portrayal of the old crone in the woods.
Amanda Baldeneaux: This book is my first formal introduction to Baba Yaga, a character I’ve only met prior on the periphery of Western fairy tales. In Yolen’s version, we meet a woman who lives both in the present and out of time, a woman who can be found by taking one wrong turn off the interstate but who can come across occupied castles and monarchies as easily as she would a 7-11.
CSP: Yes! When Natasha enters the woods the story definitely takes a turn for the fantastical: walking houses, lessons from a magical crone on flying through the air. But the gritty undercurrent from the first poems remains, just below the fantasy surface. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the protagonist tells two stories, one of animals, and one of human cannibals. Which story is true? Well, Pi asks, which one do you prefer? Yolen’s Natasha could ask the same of the reader. Does she really wander into a wood and apprentice herself to a magical crone, one who is at least as dangerous and unpredictable as Pi’s tiger? Maybe. Which kind of story do you prefer? There is power in a fairy tale to overlay trauma and transform it into something that is possible to hold in the mind. We are built of metaphor and narrative. As Yuval Harari theorizes in Sapiens, storytelling is the defining characteristic of our species, the thing that literally makes us human. Narrative is the tool we use to make sense of the chaotic world. Humans live in a dual reality; one exists objectively, the other we create in our minds to understand the first. Yolen’s book is about the power of words to create reality. It’s a meta-fairy tale, aware of its own magic.