It was nothing more than a dish of plainware pottery, a simple decoration round the rim. In its center was a crude transfer of a watermill, and around the edge was a motto: GREAT COURAGE BREAKS ILL LUCK, it read, and I know right then my heart just stopped beating altogether. Very quietly, Randall said, “Will that do?” Great courage breaks ill luck. What else could I do?
– A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
A Curse Dark as Gold is a fiction novel about a young woman, Charlotte Miller, who with her sister has recently inherited the family mill. In this telling of the Rumplestiltskin story, Charlotte’s family has held the mill for five generations, but each generation has suffered from the “Stirwaters Curse” – the mill seems to be in a constant state of disrepair, it is plagued with strange accidents, and no family has been able to produce a son to inherit. Instead, the mill has been passed to a cousin, a sibling, or in the case of Charlotte and her sister Rosie, two orphaned daughters.
Charlotte soon finds herself in the same difficult position as her ancestors: desperate for the money needed to keep the mill running and provide a livelihood for herself and her sister. It is this state in which a mysterious man named Jack Spinner appears within the mill itself and offers to spin a room of straw into spools of gold – if Charlotte will only give him the ring on her hand, a fake pearl that she had inherited from her mother.
Of course the thread is only a temporary solution to the greater problem of the curse on the mill, but as the threats upon the mill grow, from within and without, Charlotte begins to wonder whether some of these misfortunes can be linked to Jack Spinner, who seems to have a much older connection to the mill than she had initially guessed. Charlotte begins to wonder whether solving the riddle of Jack Spinner’s history might solve all of the other problems that she faces.
The aspect about this book that struck me from the very start was the world of Charlotte Miller and the Stirwaters Mill. The novel never names a year or a country, but everything about A Curse Dark as Gold felt to me like 1700s rural England. Despite the magic that is of course present in a retold fairy tale, everything about Stirwaters felt deeply real to me, from their livelihoods as millers, to their past due mortage, to the complicated relationship they have with their Uncle Wheeler. This is a book that I return to again and again because the realism that forms the backbone of this magical story just feels genuine to me in a way that many historical fictions cannot achieve.
Similarly, the characters of A Curse Dark as Gold are extremely memorable in their strengths and their weaknesses. Charlotte makes the perfect heroine – she is level-headed, stubborn enough to keep her family and friends afloat even when she could perhaps save herself at their expense, and yet she still cannot save her world alone. Charlotte has to learn to depend on those she loves to save the Stirwaters Mill.
I was most impressed with the development of Charlotte and Rosie’s Uncle Wheeler. Elliott Wheeler is the younger brother of their long-passed mother, and he seems at first to be a helping hand, but Charlotte and Rosie quickly discover his complicated history. Without revealing the mystery, I will say that Uncle Wheeler, with all his faults, was still a deeply sympathetic character to me, and I was pleased with his resolution.
Randall Woodstone, however, was by far my favorite character. He initally appears as the banker that will forclose on the Stirwaters Mill, but Randall quickly becomes tied to the fate of the mill itself, and he proves himself to be both kind and clever, a combination that is not often found in novels of this type. I was pleased with Randall’s development, and his interactions with Charlotte always felt genuine, rather than dismissing either of their independence.
In all, I would definitely recommend this to readers of young adult fiction, or anyone that enjoys historical fiction or retellings of fairy tales. I would rate this as a 9 out of 10 – perhaps not for readers that do not enjoy this genre, but still a strong novel with memorable characters, an interesting plot, and a satisfying resolution.