Sweetly by Jackson Pearce. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Gretchen and her older brother, Ansel, are on the road, driving through South Carolina, when their car breaks down. Bad luck turns to good luck when they meet Sophia Kelly, owner of Kellys’ Chocolatier. Sophia needs some help around her house and store; she cannot pay much, but she can offer a roof over their heads. She also offers friendship.
Gretchen cannot believe their luck. The Kassel siblings have only known hard times and trouble: twelve years ago, Gretchen’s twin sister disappeared. Their mother died. Their father remarried, and then he died. Once Gretchen turned eighteen, their stepmother threw them out. After all that loss, the self-imposed isolation of grief, the warmth and welcome that Sophia offers is almost too good to be true.
It may be too good to be true. There are rumors about Sophia, whispers, linking her to teenage girls who have gone missing. Not missing, say some — just high school graduates eager to leave their small town. It’s not Sophia’s fault.
Gretchen believes in Sophia, because Gretchen knows what it is to be whispered about. Gretchen is convinced that the reason her sister went missing years ago is a witch took her. As Gretchen learns more about Sophia and the missing girls, she comes to a horrifying realization. Witches aren’t real . . . but werewolves are.
The Good: Sweetly is a companion to Pearce’s Sisters Red, a fairy tale retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that made the wolves werewolves and Little Red Riding Hood into an axe wielding werewolf hunter. Sweetly, for those of you not instantly suspicious by the sibling names of Ansel and Gretchen, is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. As in Sisters Red, there are werewolves; and a main character, Samuel Reynolds, is a brother of Silas from Sisters Red. While reading Sisters Red gives the reader more knowledge of the werewolves (called Fenris), it’s not necessary to read it before reading this book, because while those readers may realize things like the significance of the color red, other readers are going to be saying “oh, so they’ve been taken in by a nice woman who makes candy? why, who in the original story is associated with candy . . . ” and put 2 and 2 together and, hopefully, not come up with 37.
I enjoyed the character of Gretchen, and her relationships with the other characters: her older brother, Ansel; their new friend, Sophia; and Samuel, one of the locals who is convinced that Sophia is linked to the disappearances of the local girls. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, or, rather, give too much away about how Pearce tweaks the original tale, because part of the fun of a retelling is seeing what the author does with it. Pearce makes this retelling refreshing, new, and exciting by having the suspected witch, Sophia, be pretty and kind and likable; introducing werewolves; and making the children grown-ups.
Gretchen starts the book with little: she and her brother were shown the door by their stepmother the moment Gretchen turned 18. All their worldly goods are in one car, and that car just broke down. Sophia taking them in begins Gretchen’s journey of trusting others, of making friends, first Sophia, and, later, Samuel. What makes her suspicions of Sophia all the more heart-breaking is that Sophia has truly helped Gretchen and Ansel. Even then, though, Gretchen looks for ways to make sense of it all, to not lay blame without proof.
Then, there is the werewolves! Gretchen’s acceptance of their existence makes sense, as she both sees them in action and has always believed that something more was at work when her sister disappeared. As a child, she believed it was a witch; now, after talking to Samuel, she believes it was a werewolf. Either way, her response is so terrific I have to share it, spoilers be damned. Gretchen decides to learn to shoot; she decides she is not going to be passive, is not going to run away, is not going to pretend the big bad wolf doesn’t exist, is not going to lock her doors; she’s going to learn how to protect herself.
One of the things I enjoyed about Sisters Red was the meaning behind many of the names used. Pearce has fun with names once again, and no, I’m not just talking Ansel is Hansel and Gretchen is Gretel. Kassel, their last name, sounds like “castle” and castles are often in fairy tales. More importantly Kassel is also a town in Germany — not just any town, but the town where the Brothers Grimm lived. Abigail, the name of a child that was lost, means “father’s joy” and any joy that family had was lost with the child. Sophia means “wisdom,” and I’ll leave it to the reader to determine how meaningful that name is. Naida means “water nymph,” and that character has a tie to the ocean.
The next book in this sequence is Fathomless, and will modernize The Little Mermaid.