Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Zel and Mother live quite happily together in their quiet Swiss alm, mostly isolated from people yet satisfied with each other’s nearness. Still, Zel loves the time twice a year that they go into the town–then she gets to talk to many people, eat treats, and see all sorts of interesting things. On her thirteenth birthday, they go into town together, Zel and Mother. And while they are there, Zel meets a boy–a young Count though she doesn’t know that–who catches her interest and won’t let it go, even after they leave town to return the the quiet alm. When she finds out about Zel’s interest in the boy, Mother panics. She must protect Zel, keep Zel with her, even if it means hiding Zel away in a tower all by herself to do so.
Zel is a fascinating, somewhat horrifying retelling of the classic story of Rapunzel. Napoli’s depictions of the characters is achingly deep, psychologically and emotionally raw. Mother in particular is a clear picture of how crazy people can become when they make one thing alone important to themselves–honestly, she’s really scary even though she initially seems pleasant and sweet. Zel herself is a lovely character, innocent and sweet, yet with a wisdom and understanding that comes of being ill used and moving past that. And of course, the young Count is the hero riding in to save the day–complete with climbing Zel’s hair to get to her tower room–yet he has more depth than your typical “Prince Charming” depictions. In addition to the character development, I do have to praise Napoli’s work on the historical setting–it is fascinating to have a fairy tale retelling set convincingly in Switzerland during the mid-1500s, and the blend of fantasy and history is perfect. While not for everyone, for those ready for a psychologically intense story, Zel is a well-executed, illuminating fairy-tale retelling