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Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

—a report by Lisa Brock

(The truth behind the story must be kept secret for the protection of so-called “Princess Cinderella”)

It was never Cinderella—no pumpkins turned into carriages, no one made footmen out of horses and horses out of mice, and there was definitely no fairy godmother. It was just Ella, her inability to be complacent with situations she disagreed with, and the fact that she took control of her life even when the world tried to corset her.

Ella did have it hard—that part of the fairytale is true. Her stepmother and stepsisters treated her cruelly when her father wasn’t around, and when he died, she became nothing more than a servant. Her beauty spited her stepmother and her comparatively homely stepsisters; what they lacked for in beauty, personality, and basic compassion for human beings they made up for by dehumanizing who they felt was their rival. When the fateful night of Prince Charming’s royal ball arrived, they felt threatened enough to order Ella to stay at home. Although the invitation had been for all the young women in the land (a point the herald made quite profusely when Ella asked for clarification) the stepmother refused to see Ella as a young woman. Did that stop Ella? No. She covertly altered her mother’s old wedding dress when she wasn’t slaving away for her stepfamily, won two bets with the boastful village glassblower and got her glass slippers. After her stepfamily departed on the night of the ball she donned her new-old dress, styled her hair, and set off, walking on foot in her father’s old boots. When the castle was in sight, she hid the boots behind a tree, and walked up to the palace gates in her delicate slippers. Carriages were bringing the ladies up to the palace, and Ella noticed that not one woman arrived on foot. She walked to the place where the carriages were parked, and asked a kind carriage driver if he would drive her to the front of the palace for a farthing. The carriage driver was so taken with her beauty that he even offered to drive her home for free—as long as she left the ball by midnight, to allow time to come back for his true customers. Ella agreed to the terms, and went on into the palace. The rest is history—how she caught and held the attention of Prince Charming, lost track of time and barely made it back out to her carriage by midnight. In her haste, she lost a glass slipper that she had no time to go back for. The prince found the slipper and eventually Ella, and when the slipper fit, she was swept away from her miserable life and spirited to the palace. Ella becomes a royal princess engaged to the Prince, and they supposedly live happily ever after. Ella was able to act on her own, and life rewarded her with freedom and a handsome prince, which she had never expected. No fairy godmothers involved. The end.

Or was it?

The rest of truth is that Ella was taken to the palace…and then she never was let out again. In Cinderella part two, it was portrayed that Cinderella was very disappointed, appalled, and repulsed by the ways of the royals, and this is accurate. Ella was accosted with tutors and chaperones and ladies-in-waiting who were constantly telling her “Princesses don’t do this” and “Princesses should always do this” and “Ladies are like delicate flowers that must never have a worry in their heads.” Ella went from a hard life of hauling water and firewood, scrubbing floors with her bare hands, and metaphorically (and sometimes literally) spoon-feeding her selfish stepfamily to doing needlepoint, studying decorum and French, and never doing anything for herself. She started an uproar in the palace for starting her own fire one morning, saving a tutor’s life (a situation which called her to remove his too-tight shirts that impaired his breathing), and demanding to see the sunlight the one time she was permitted out of doors. Her difficulty adjusting to her new life allowed her to see the error of who everyone wanted her to become—if she had simply accepted what they told her, she would have never realized how wrong they were. Ella’s only true friends at the palace were a servant girl and the sick tutor’s son who replaced him. What’s more, Prince Charming wasn’t that charming after all—he had only wanted to marry her for her beauty! Now that Ella had found out what the Royals and palace life were really like, she knew she couldn’t go on the way she was. Her attempt to call off the wedding smoothly ended with her being drugged and thrown into the dungeon until she “came to her senses.” Still, she refused to bend to any will other than her own. They thought they could force her to comply by giving her either weevil soup or not feeding her at all, but she had gone hungry many times when she lived with her stepfamily, and her servant friend brought her real food anyway. Ella asked her servant girl to tell her replacement tutor to come help her, but she was informed that he had left to realize his dream of running a camp for refugees of the war that was being fought. This presented a problem, but also another opportunity to think for herself. Her not yet empty mind gave her the idea to dig her way out of the dungeon; she asked her servant friend to bring her a shovel and that’s exactly how she escaped. Though she had help, she still made the decision to respect herself. She stole away into the night and never saw the palace again.

But that’s still not the end of the story!

Ella travelled for many days until she reached the home of her stepfamily, where she took some provisions before she started off. Her stepmother caught her in her act and figured she would do her stepdaughter a kind act by allowing her to be a servant again, but true to herself, Ella did not let the false perceptions of others detract her from her original goal. In her usual style, she left and never looked back. After going from one extreme to the other, she was back where she had started, with no one to wait on her and no one to depend on but herself. She slept by day and travelled by night, until she reached her goal: her friend’s refugee camp. She had been studying her father’s books for knowledge on agriculture and medicine, and approached her friend with no intentions to fall on his mercy but to offer something useful to his cause. Ella’s independence had not gone as uncelebrated as she felt; her friend had been in love with her since the moment he met her, and the resolution to this story is that Ella did find true love, a place where she could nurture her personality, and an opportunity to really live happily-ever-after—in her own way.

In my opinion, this story is symbolic of the fact that romantic fairytales too often make the happiness of the main character revolve around the wits of “Prince Charming”. It portrays the idea that women cannot be fulfilled until a man comes along to sweep them off their feet, and it makes it seem as though men hold the key to the end of their problems. Sometimes they even throw in a fairy godmother to make the young girl seem even more incapable to make her own dreams come true. These fairytales are often imposed upon the impressionable young minds of little girls, possibly causing them to become frivolous women who can’t think for themselves and contribute little of importance to society. Since these stories display no obvious threat, they are rarely seen as so and therefore frequently misconstrued as harmless. The damage they can do is never even seen as damage, either: beautiful yet vapid women can find favour with domineering, egomaniacal men who see women as flowers created for their enjoyment. Societies don’t realize that women have more to give than lipstick-smiles and faces for fashion magazines. It is only the women who forge their own way and leave their marks on the world who will prevail, go down in history, or simply be satisfied with their lives. Like in Ella’s time, too many girls try to live up to the ideals that are set according to the opinions and tastes of men. When someone breaks out of the mold, it they should be looked upon with respect, not scorn. When will we realize that we are not living in a fairytale, and it doesn’t take an illusive prince in shining armour to make our lives complete? The individual and their own intelligence are in charge of writing their stories—only they can decide when to start living happily-ever-after.

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