Might as well get the true confessions out of the way up front. I've always loved Rumpelstiltskin – the story, the mystery, the sound of his name, all that gold. It appealed to me as a child and even now as an adult. So I came to Liesl Shurtliff's debut novel with baggage. I approached reading a middle-grade novel based on my favorite Brothers Grimm fairy tale with trepidation. What if it didn't measure up?
I shouldn't have worried. What an unexpected treat Rump is.
The boy Rump, as he's mostly called (for he never knew what his mother, who died in childbirth, intended to name him), is a delight. Hardly the impish, unattractive schemer, he's a totally sympathetic character – self-effacing, funny-as-anything, and sometimes a poet. The butt of jokes and quite small for his age, he lives with his grandmother in a village where life is hard and everyone fights for a scrap of bread. A conniving miller doles out grain while his two bullying sons figure out ways to get the best of Rump.
Soon Rump is at his wit's end – and we've been made to believe his wit is not his strongest suit. When he finds his mother's spinning wheel, despite warnings from his old Gran and his best friend Red, he decides to see what he can make of it. Will he find the magic that changes his luck? And, even more important to Rump, will he uncover the mystery behind his true name?
Unfortunately, the miller's sons are on to him. When first they see him spinning straw into gold, Rump tries to make himself feel better, arguing that they couldn't really know what he is doing. Soon, however, he realizes "what kind of worry I had.... Frederick and Bruno might be complete idiots, but any village idiot knows gold when they see it."
So off the boy goes to escape his village and to find his name. After all, this is a fairy tale – we must have a quest! His journey pits him against trolls, pixies, the miller's sons, and a newly-crowned queen with an urgent need for gold. But unlike the Grimms' furious Rumpelstilskin who stamps his foot and disappears in a chasm, our Rump grows wiser, not to mention taller.
A funny, charming novel that will appeal to boys and girls, "Rump" is a lighthearted hero story starring a bumpish kid who's smarter than he's given credit for being. It's a magical fairy tale delightfully re-imagined. Shurtliff's ending is guaranteed to make young readers line up for a sequel, or at the very least a companion story. Might it involve Rump's smart, sassy sidekick Red, also known as Red Riding Hood?
I can't wait to see what's next for Liesl Shurtliff. "Rump" is certainly an auspicious, page-turning beginning.
Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children's books for the Monitor.