Review: “Just Ella” by Margaret Peterson Haddix

For the love of books

Cinderella is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular and well known fairy tales in the literary world.  However, its most famous characteristics all are magically related.  What could the story be like without any fairy godmother or magic to help out the heroine? Moreover, what about Prince Charming?  What was his real personality, and did Cinderella really have a true love match with him, living “happily ever after” beyond the conclusion of the original narrative?  These are all logical questions that arise when analyzing the simply storyline of Cinderella.  The puzzling features inside Cinderella are exactly what make Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix a delightful rebirth of the classic.

Forget about magic—Cinderella is completely dependent on her own wits and strength in order to survive realistic problems in a very realistic world.  Beginning the story in media res, the author backtracks to the origins of her heroine, fifteen year-old Ella Brown.  Providing reasonable explanations and practical solutions to enigmas, Cinderella’s new traits could not be more appropriate for her mentality.  Determined and strong-willed, Ella’s temperament is supported by her intelligence, her passion for books, and her motivation to acquire knowledge.  However, the time frame is set after the famous ball; Ella is waiting through her engagement until she can finally marry Prince Charming (his actual name), the heir to the throne of the kingdom Fridesia.

Having escaped the clutches of her evil stepmother and stepsisters, Ella is relieved by her changed status quo.  She is now a princess who dreams of living “happily ever after” with her prince and true love.  On the other hand, the longer Ella lives in Charming’s castle, the sooner she realizes the truth.  Her newfound freedom from domination and extortion is non-existent in an environment where she is constantly supervised and told what to do or say.  She also begins to doubt her romance with the prince when she discovers that they can’t even have a few minutes conversation together.  All the ideals and hopes she treasured from her books and her past are only kept alive by her new friendships with a clever servant girl and her intellectual tutor, Jed.  When Ella finally understands the extent of her mistake and the restrained course her life is headed toward, she must fight her despair, her fears, her painful memories of her beloved father, and her inward confusion.  She must decide to once again take her destiny into her own hands and choose what future she wants—to either be the unhappy prisoner of an idiotic man for the rest of her life, or a scholar and the independent woman she is meant to be.

Just Ella is truly a unique visualization of Cinderella because its author included so many ideas and themes in the same story, connecting them to create the scintillating expression of a very interesting and well developed character like Ella.  The meaningless war between Fridesia and the neighboring kingdom of Suala is another way that Haddix brings war’s futility and the value of a single human life to the foreground of Just Ella together with the issues of servitude, class division, prejudice, superficiality, and independence to the foreground.  Society’s preoccupation with outward appearances is contrasted with Ella’s analysis and commentary on how concern for inward appearances is seriously needed by them instead.  Along with the many surprises and twists in the storyline, there are also many human stereotypes to be found among the story’s characters, especially in the royal household of Fridesia and Ella’s family.  Haddix demonstrates the step-by-step process of how a simple story could be transformed into a fantastical fairy tale without any facts.  The “history” of Cinderella, her nickname, and her family relationships are all taken into account in Just Ella in place of magic.  In fact, the author substitutes the magical elements in the plot with serious topics and discussions about marriage, love, religion, faith, and propriety.

Just Ella is an amazing novel; although it contains serious content worthy of contemplation, Haddix presents her material in an informative and humorous manner.  One can become thoroughly involved in Ella’s personal journey, her love for literature, her resolve, and her underlying quest for finding happiness.  Ella’s past, present, and future expand a thrilling adventure and stimulating first-person narrative that is greater in scope and details than its predecessor.  Comprehensive and still romantic, Just Ella is the extraordinary result of how a writer re-envisioned a known story like Cinderella with pragmatism.

Original review: Part 1: A witty version of ‘Cinderella’ minus the magical elementsPart 2: A witty version of ‘Cinderella’ minus the magical elementsPart 3: A witty version of ‘Cinderella’ minus the magical elements,


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