APRIL 17, 2021
I REMEMBER the first time I went to Detroit. I was presenting a paper at a conference being held downtown at Wayne State University, and I took the opportunity to step across the street to the Detroit Institute of Arts. As I entered the building, I was immediately immersed in the massive Detroit Industry Murals, completed by muralist Diego Rivera in 1932–’33. I gazed at the upper reaches of the northeast corner to see the panel that nearly got the mural torn down — a sly retelling of the nativity scene for Rivera’s times, with the three wise men portrayed as scientists. The mural’s depiction of Mary (or the nurse) was based on Jean Harlow, herself a tragic figure; the figure of Joseph was modeled on the museum director of the time. Joseph is dressed as a medical doctor and administering a vaccine to a screaming baby Jesus, who bears a marked resemblance to Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. — the child whose tragic 1932 kidnapping and murder H. L. Mencken dubbed “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
In his deceptively simple panel, Rivera celebrated and critiqued the way that modern faith in science and obsession with celebrity interacted with our societal mores and beliefs in religion and older myths. Looking on, I felt as if the artist were winking at me, a roguish uncle over the holiday table of Western civilization. I had the same feeling reading Veronica Schanoes’s short story collection Burning Girls and Other Stories: Schanoes’s stories blend details from her personal life with recognizable elements of collective Western tales and myths, slyly updating and deftly critiquing family legends.
Burning Girls is also like a Rivera mural in that it, too, is immersive. Like each individual panel in the Detroit Industry Murals, Schanoes’s stories contain much more than they originally seem to suggest. These tales are sophisticated cultural interventions: some challenge the reader to rethink received historical narratives, while others use fairy tales to challenge the gendered and gentrified conventions of fundamental cultural tropes. All are a heady mix of magic, myth, fantasy, and social commentary, from a politically left Jewish feminist perspective. Schanoes’s fairy tales are dark, closer to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm than to their more recent, bowdlerized versions. These are adult stories for our age, marked by the presence of drugs, violence, abandonment, sexual abuse, and death, along with limited redemption as well as occasional — though usually circumscribed — victories.
Schanoes intervenes consistently throughout the complex patterns of her narratives, using her scholarly knowledge to great effect. One sublime story, “How to Bring Someone Back from the Dead,” engages a dizzying array of myths and folklore: “You will kiss her. You will jar her or perform the Heimlich maneuver. She might be choking on an apple or some pomegranate seeds or maybe a plastic tube. Help her.” In “Among the Thorns,” Schanoes extends a Grimm fairy tale, revealing its ignored repercussions in a reflection on Jewish identity and the history of European antisemitism. In “Ballroom Blitz,” she transmutes “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a dozen young brothers trapped in a punk club, using this setting to reflect on the effects and meaning of “rescue.” The narrator’s voice throughout the book, voiced as though it’s Schanoes herself — though in one story stating, “I have not lied about anything yet,” so caveat emptor — proves a potent interlocutor, directly addressing the reader with poetic meditations or acerbic opinions, confiding personal details and dissecting the narrative structure even while building it. Over the course of the book, Schanoes leads us to meditate on celebrity, life, death, and loss, as well as on the artificiality of narrative and story that all tales share.
Burning Girls is situated within a powerful feminist tradition of reframing folklore and fairy tales, with Schanoes and her work joining Anglophone contemporaries like R. B. Lemberg, Aliette de Bodard, Seanan McGuire, and Nnedi Okorafor, and anthologies like The Starlit Wood. These authors and texts offer us a new perspective on our cultural legacies, leveling powerful critiques from the perspectives of heroines often framed as passive but who, it turns out, have plenty of passion ready to realize. Schanoes’s collection is filled with girls and women burning — in rage, in fever, in passion — and fire as transformation, destruction, justice, and hope, fill these pages.
“Phosphorous,” for example, challenges the established male-centric model of labor history, reviving women’s roles in the important struggles of the working class and demonstrating the vital role of (im)migrants to the rise of the modern labor movement. Set in London in 1888, the story focuses on the historic workers’ action of the “match girls” who made matches tipped with white phosphorous for the Bryant & May Match Company. Through the use of the second person, Schanoes interpolates the reader into the position of one of the workers. Like the green-skinned chemical workers depicted in one of Rivera’s panels, this story interrogates the dangers of the factory by transporting the reader inside the mind of its heroine, whose monstrous appearance is the result of “phossy jaw” brought about by phosphorous exposure. Though the condition had been identified for decades, employers refused to implement safety measures even as workers suffered the horrors of their jaws blackening, losing bone, and rotting off. The story’s action progresses along with the disease and of course with the inevitable workers’ strike itself.
Schanoes draws from the work of historians like Nan Enstad to challenge the gendered framing of labor history, recentering the vital role of women workers in forming the labor movement. These workers’ historical place as early British strikers has often been written off by virtue of their class, their gender, and their status as Irish migrants in London. Schanoes’s work directly challenges what is then a triple negation that these striking women have suffered in our historical narrative.
Punk is another theme that fills these pages, not just in content (i.e., references to concerts or clothes) but also in form. In stories like “Rats,” Schanoes does not just portray punk heroines in fairy-tale settings but rather punks the fairy tales themselves, throwing the old and the new together in the mosh pit. Like the Dropkick Murphys, The Pogues, and Joe Strummer, Schanoes tears riffs from tradition and history and strips off their romantic ornament while keeping the context, making them her own by remixing them for a modern audience and turning up the volume. Schanoes hurls agrarian tradition into the chaotic city. Modernity electrifies her stories, and she mesmerizes her audience with a deft combination of erudition and defiance.
For example, “Rats” turns Sleeping Beauty’s sleep into heroin addiction (the syringe standing in for the spindle) and both Beauty and Prince Charming into heroin users. Instead of castles, the story’s setting alternates between the punk scenes of New York City and London. A combination of prophecies and curses are laid upon the birth of a young woman who grows to love the punk scene, but also suffers from untreatable mental illness. The heroine seeks relief through heroin addiction until she ends her life with the help of her addicted boyfriend, who kills himself sometime later. The author interrogates the structure of fairy tales as lies that do us no favors when faced with a world where pain is not redemptive and happy endings are not inevitable but rather few and far between. Schanoes’s voice prods the reader to recognize the story beyond the fairy tale.
Schanoes shows her craft throughout this story, negotiating with the tale even as she tells it. In Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, the muralist painted himself sitting on a scaffold superimposed on the front of the mural, his back to the audience; similarly, in these stories, Schanoes the artist frames herself through authorial interludes that run the gamut from briskness to despair. Just as in Rivera’s Detroit nativity scene, Schanoes uses her knowledge of the punk scene to populate the old Sleeping Beauty tale with tragic celebrities Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, framing Sleeping Beauty’s “sleep” as Spungen’s descent into heroin addiction to escape crippling depression and mental trauma. Through the device of the fairy tale, Schanoes shows how the romanticized stories told about Sid and Nancy are as much a fairy tale as the story of Sleeping Beauty. In Schanoes’s words, “Death has no narrative arc and no dignity, and now you can silkscreen these two kids’ pictures on your fucking T-shirt.”
The story “Emma Goldman Takes Tea With the Baba Yaga” richly combines folklore, biography, political history, and memoir to flesh out the emotional and political impossibilities (and otherwise) faced by the extraordinary orator, and by all of us, in times of loss and disillusionment. Schanoes directly states that “[l]ife doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to happen. That is why art is superior to life. It is why fairy tales can contain as much truth as facts.” While the excessive chaos of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War evades cohesive meaning, mediated stories make it manageable and thus “more real.” Schanoes does just that, demanding acknowledgment of the gargantuan modern scope of privation, death, and other sacrifices imposed during the Russian Civil War via the perspective of the anarchist who terrified US authorities. Schanoes draws meaning from Goldman’s experiences in the larger context of spent labor, betrayal, colossal turmoil, and grief.
Schanoes personalizes Goldman’s politics through biographical detail, juxtaposing events from Goldman’s life with a fairy-tale narrative. The story also contains conversations between the narrator and her once-Marxist mother, recounting comments like, “We all should have known after Kronstadt.” The narrator is arch and precise, her interjections building a brittle distance from the immediacy of Emma’s time: “It’s all history now. Goldman has been dead and buried for almost eighty years, and Red Emma, the most dangerous woman in America, is safe for leftist Jewish feminists such as myself to lionize.” In the time the story is set, “[Goldman’s] heart, previously anarchist black and red, was turning gray with grief” at the loss of her beloved sister, while the unmitigated horror and violence of the Russian Civil War poisoned Goldman’s hope of mothering the Revolution. When the despairing Goldman goes behind the Baba Yaga’s bone fence, the folklore icon turns out to be her ambivalent self, offering Goldman respite from the reality of her ravaged dream — or death.
Like Diego Rivera, Veronica Schanoes combines past and present, myth and current events to situate us in our own cultural context, drawing our eyes and hearts to details that surprise and resonate. Like the Baba Yaga, Schanoes takes us into her extraordinary dwelling; she shows us terror, cruelty, joy, satisfaction, grim reality, and revolutionary interventions of all kinds. We emerge, when she allows, in an unexpected place full of emotion and thought, and the transmuted understanding that peoples’ lives are more terrible, more precarious, and more miraculous than we can fully fathom.
Mark Soderstrom has been a professional blacksmith, carpenter, labor organizer, and musician. He is now an Associate Professor in the MALS and Work and Labor Policy programs of SUNY-Empire State College.