A Personal History-with Fairy Tales

About the Book

A beautifully written memoir-in-essays on fairy tales and their surprising relevance to modern life, from a Jewish woman raising Black children in the American South—based on her acclaimed Paris Review column “Happily”

“One of the most inventive, phenomenally executed books I’ve read in decades.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

The literary tradition of the fairy tale has long endured as the vehicle by which we interrogate the laws of reality. These fantastical stories, populated with wolves, kings, and wicked witches, have throughout history served as a template for understanding culture, society, and that muddy terrain we call our collective human psyche. In Happily, Sabrina Orah Mark reimagines the modern fairy tale, turning it inside out and searching it for the wisdom to better understand our contemporary moment in what Mark so incisively calls “this strange American weather.”

Set against the backdrop of political upheaval, viral plague, social protest, and climate change, Mark locates the magic in the mundane and illuminates the surreality of life as we know it today. She grapples with a loss of innocence in “Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You,” when her son decides he would rather dress up as Martin Luther King, Jr., than Peter Pan for Halloween. In “The Evil Stepmother,” Mark finds unlikely communion with wicked wives and examines the roots of their bad reputation. And in “Rapunzel, Draft One Thousand,” the hunt for a wigmaker in a time of unprecedented civil unrest forces Mark to finally confront her sister’s cancer diagnosis and the stories we tell ourselves to get by.

Revelatory, whimsical, and utterly inspired, Happily is a testament to the singularity of Sabrina Orah Mark’s voice and the power of the fantastical to reveal essential truths about life, love, and the meaning of family.
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Praise for Happily

“With milk teeth, bread crumbs, pebbles, and tears, Sabrina Orah Mark illumines the outermost expanses of motherhood’s chaos, cruelty, and love. She confidently wields the weird logic of the fairy tale; bewitched, I didn’t even try to distinguish the real from the unreal. I just wanted to follow this thrillingly distinctive book wherever it went.”—Sarah Manguso, author of Very Cold People

“Who is this stunning sorceress of love and lightness and language wrapped around the heavy? We are so lucky to have her to consider the world with us. This book is going onto my fairy-tale class syllabus pronto but beyond the tales it’s also such a powerful investigation of motherhood, of personhood, chock-full of truly amazing associations. A keeper.”—Aimee Bender, author of The Color Master and The Butterfly Lampshade

“Sabrina Orah Mark’s lapidary sentences hitched together can make us understand fairy tales better but not by any means so obvious as explaining them. These are fairy tales that are essays on fairy tales but also incantations, confessions, news analysis, personal history, and reminders that fairy tales are dainty things capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting of the contents of our imaginations and the aches of our hearts. Which is my long-winded way of saying: Amazing! Gorgeous! Read this!”—Rebecca Solnit, author of Waking Beauty and Men Explain Things to Me

“You will remember the day, hour and minute you finish Happily. And it might remember you. Magic does live here. Sabrina Orah Mark has actually remade our childhoods by taking so seriously the world we’ve made as adults. Easily one of the most inventive, phenomenally executed books I’ve read in decades.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir

Happily . . . is a bubbling cauldron filled with ingredients as diverse as parenting and premonitions, mythological creatures and marriage, mothers and sons and fairies and witches, and always there is magic. . . . Mark’s essays . . . often [end] somewhere far from where the reader may have expected; however, it is always exactly as it should be.”—Shelf Awareness

“Each [essay] sums up a different fairy tale, or set of tales, making clever, lyrical, sometimes-disturbing connections . . . Sprinkle these clever essays like breadcrumbs through the forest of your days.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[Sabrina Orah] Mark writes with profound curiosity, attentive awe, and a poet’s magnifying vision. Seamlessly, [her] imagination makes new the ancient and oft-told.”Booklist

“In her probing memoir-in-essays, Mark uses fairy tales as framing devices to unpack a range of topics including motherhood, marriage, racism, and mortality. . . . Mark’s sharp analysis captures the ‘cultural resilience’ of fairy tales, and her writing hums with lyrical self-reflection. . . . Readers will find this full of insight.”Publishers Weekly
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Chapter 1

Ghost People

My son’s teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People.

“Ghost People?”

“Yes,” she says. She is cheerful, though I suspect the main ingredient of her cheer is dread. “Can you encourage Noah to stop bringing them to school?” She is whispering, and she is smiling. She is a close talker and occasionally calls me “girl,” which embarrasses me.

“I don’t know these Ghost People.”

“You do.”

“I don’t think so.”

“He makes them out of the wood chips he finds on the playground. They’re distracting him. He isn’t finishing his sentences.”

“Okay,” I say. “Ghost People.”

She smiles wide. One of her front teeth looks more alive than it should be.

As a toddler, Noah always had a superhero in one hand and a superhero in the other.

Like the world was a tightrope and the men were his balance pole. Now he makes his own men. Out of pipe cleaners and twigs and paper and Q-tips and string and Band-Aids, but mostly wood chips. I eavesdrop. With Noah there, the Ghost People seem to speak a mix of cloud and wind. They are rowdy and kind. They comfort him. If Adam looked like anything in the beginning, I suspect it would be these wood chips, the color of dry earth. He, too, would be speaking in a language from a place that doesn’t quite exist.

But also I know as Noah gets older the world will make it even more difficult for him to carry these People around.

“For god’s sake,” says my mother, “let him carry the freaking Ghost People around. Who is he hurting?”

“Maybe himself?” I say.

“Why himself?” she asks. “How himself?”

“They’re distracting him,” I explain.

“From what?”

“From his sentences.”

“Who the hell cares?” says my mother.

In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the first thing Pinocchio does, once his mouth is carved, is laugh at Geppetto. And the first thing he does once his hands are finished is snatch Geppetto’s yellow wig off his head. And the first thing he does once his feet are done is kick Geppetto in the nose, leaving him to feel “more wretched and miserable than he felt in all his life.” If what he is making hurts him, why does Geppetto keep carving? Maybe it’s because before he even began carving, he knew he would call his wooden son Pinocchio. Maybe because Geppetto understands that sometimes the things we create to protect us, to give us good fortune, need first to thin us into a vulnerability where the only thing that can save us are those things that almost erased us. Where the only thing that can bring us back to ourselves is what brought us to the edge of our being in the first place. Or maybe it’s just that Geppetto is lonely.

“What did you do today at school?”

“Nothing,” says Noah.

When I empty his lunch bag, I find three Ghost People inside.

In the world of fairy tales, Geppetto is the mother of all mothers. After jail, beatings, poverty, hunger, and crying, all brought on by his spoiled, lying wooden boy, he still—heartsick—looks for his boy everywhere. They finally unite in the belly of a shark. Pinocchio walks and walks toward a “glow” until he reaches Geppetto, lit by the flame of his last candlestick, sitting at a small dining table eating live minnows. He is now little and old and so white he “might have been made of snow or whipped cream.” Promising to never leave him again, Pinocchio (only a meter tall) swims out of the shark’s mouth, toward the moonlight and the starry sky, with Geppetto on his back. If an old man and a wooden boy ever shared a single birth, it would probably look something like this.

Eli doesn’t make Ghost People, but his pockets are always filled with sticks and leaves. If I were to keep everything my boys have ever found and brought home, I could easily have enough for a whole tree. Maybe even a small forest. When the shooting happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, all I could think about at first was the name of the synagogue. All I could think about was the Tree. I shut the news off fast.

“What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah.

“Nothing,” I say. “I think a branch fell.”

I haven’t yet read my boys Pinocchio, the story of a boy carved from a tree, and I don’t tell them about the shooting at the Tree of Life, either. I get an email from our synagogue: “Join Us for Coffee and an Informal Discussion About How We Can Help Our Children Cope With Frightening Situations As Well As Anti-Semitism.” I go to the meeting. At the meeting, one mother maps out the Active Shooter Plan she’s drawn up with the help of her five-and eight-year-olds.

I say I’ve told my boys nothing. Some congregants say I’m keeping my sons in a “bubble.” Another congregant, feeling protective of me, interrupts with the word cocoon. “Cocoon is more like it,” she explains. What she means, I think, is that bubble implies a lack of air, whereas cocoon implies transformation.

“Her boys might not be ready,” says another congregant.

Who is ready? I wonder. At forty-three, I’m not ready. Ready to know we can be burst into smithereens at any moment? Ready to be hated since forever?

An Israeli congregant explains he keeps nothing from his children. He uses the word inoculation. Like if you inject little pieces of horror into your children, they won’t shatter when the horror comes.

I get his point. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth because I can’t shove the entire room into my mouth. Because I can’t shove all the windows, and chairs, and all the parents, and all their fears, and all their children, too. I don’t know how to save anybody.

When I pick Noah up from Sunday school, later that morning, an enormous paper hamsa dangles around his neck by a soft strand of red yarn. The hamsa is brightly colored and beautiful and heartbreaking. “It’s for protection,” says Noah. I watch the other Jewish children spill from the classroom wearing paper hands on their chests, too. “It’s the paper hand of God,” says Noah. He swings the yarn around so now the hamsa is against his back. He is so small, suddenly. He is wearing rain boots, but I don’t remember it raining that day.

My child, I want to say at the meeting at the synagogue, carries Ghost People around so we’ll be fine. I want to say, I haven’t even read my sons Pinocchio yet. I want to say, How many minutes of all our children’s childhoods are left? Instead, I say, “My children ask me if their Black father was ever a slave. They ask me if they will ever be turned into slaves. They ask me if I would ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As Black Jewish boys, my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.” Everyone gets very quiet. “Tell me where the bubble is. Where’s the bubble?”

In late sixteenth-century Prague, when waves of hatred rose against the Jews again, a story brewed about Rabbi Loew, who made a golem out of prayers and clay, a golem whose job it was to guard the Jews from harm. There are two versions of how the rabbi brought the golem to life. The first is that he inserted the shem, a parchment with God’s name, into the golem’s mouth; the second is that he inscribed the word emet, or “truth,” on the golem’s forehead. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t speak. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t lie. But he can hear and he can understand.

In a 1969 painting by the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington entitled The Bath of Rabbi Loew, the rabbi is in his bathtub dreaming up the golem. The rabbi glows white, not unlike Geppetto in the belly of the shark. In the doorway, carrying a water jug, is most likely the golem in a nightgown. A figure wearing a hat shaped like a gigantic teardrop or a black lightbulb stands behind the rabbi. The figure is holding a towel. Surrounding the bath are what look like the letters of an unknown alphabet or the footprints of Noah’s Ghost People. It’s hard to tell.

When the slander about the Jews using the blood of Christian babies in their rituals begins to quiet, Rabbi Loew decides the golem is no longer needed. In one story, the name of God is removed from the golem’s mouth, and he dies. But in another stranger and more beautiful story, a little girl rubs the aleph off his forehead and turns emet into met: “truth” into “death.” Because in Hebrew the only thing standing between truth and death is an aleph. In the Sefer Yetzirah, the oldest and most mysterious of all the cabalistic texts, the aleph is represented by silence, and its “value designation” is “mother.” I wonder what would’ve happened had Geppetto given Pinocchio an aleph. A small one, carved onto the bridge of his nose. Because, ultimately, aren’t silence and truth what Pinocchio is always missing?

About the Author

Sabrina Orah Mark
Sabrina Orah Mark is an award-winning fiction writer and poet who has written the column “Happily” for The Paris Review since 2018. She is the author of Wild Milk, a collection of fiction, as well as two collections of poetry, The Babies and Tsim Tsum. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons. More by Sabrina Orah Mark
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