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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reader's Diary #1232: Marika McCoola (Writer), Emily Carroll (Artist): Baba Yaga's Assistant

Having heard so many glowing reviews of Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll's Baba Yaga's Assistant,  I just had to read this one.

Baba Yaga, for the uninitiated, is a character from Slavic folklore; a woods-dwelling woman who lives in a hut atop chicken legs, and seems to have been featured in many cautionary tales to children. Having not heard of this witch-like character before, I was intrigued by this angle and in that regard wasn't overly disappointed.

It did, however, feel like a mis-translation. It wasn't actually translated (McCoola lives in Massachusetts and researched Russian folklore for this book), but nonetheless felt like when I've read stories from other languages that I didn't quite get. I've been left to wonder if there's a cultural block, if it was translated poorly, or if I just read a bad example. Baba Yaga was interesting, absolutely. But I didn't ever feel like I understood what the character was all about. A bit of a trickster, scary but possibly with a good side, crazy but possibly with method to her madness. She didn't come together.

Of course, the book is not about Baba Yaga herself, but about her assistant, Masha. I'm not sure how old Masha's supposed to be, but in her late teens, I presume. She's applying for a job to become Baba Yaga's assistant based on an ad in a newspaper. She remembers Baba Yaga stories fondly, told to her mostly by her grandmother after her mother died. Plus, it's clear Masha wants to get out of the house now that her father is remarrying, and worse, she'll soon have a bratty young step-sister.

The contemporary, grounded story was compelling but I don't think it ever adequately came together, either. The job ad that Masha reads, for instance, comes across as something written by a crazy person. Masha, who seems otherwise grounded, doesn't bat an eyelash. And she remains unphased throughout. A straight man is necessary at times, but only because of his reactions which should, quite frankly, resemble what our own would be in the situation. Was Masha supposed to be imagining all of this? I wanted at least one character to hang my hat on, someone I could understand or at the very least, help me understand the story.

The art, from Canada's Emily Carroll, fared better for me. A cross between Pen Ward (Adventure Time) and Vera Brosgol (Anya's Ghost), the end result has a perfect balance of zaniness and normalcy. A deliciously sinister witch with a average, everyday assistant. In other words, Carroll largely achieved what I'd hoped the writing would have.

2 comments:

Nicola Mansfield said...

You've never heard of Baba Yaga??! This has so many references to a whole bunch of different Baba Yaga tales that I guess I can understand you not getting a feel for her. To me it was like a trip down memory lane, I never thought what the story would be like for someone who hadn't ever heard of Baba.

John Mutford said...

Nicola: Yeah, as far as I know Newfoundland has no Slavic-population whatsoever, so those influences (as awesome as they would have been) were not experienced.