Today’s Book: “The Prince and Her Dreamer” by Ennis Bashe.
The Plot: A retelling of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker,” in which the Nutcracker Prince is a nonbinary lesbian and Clara, her love interest, is autistic.
Autistic Character(s): Clara.
Most of us know the story of The Nutcracker, so I won’t spend a lot of time explaining the plot or characters. Bashe adheres fairly closely to the source material, but they do go deeper into some of its implications than many versions. Particularly into what it’s like for the Nutcracker character, Mathilde – also called the Red Prince – to lead a war at a young age and be frozen in doll form while the war continues without her.
Clara is a seventeen-year-old girl who has fallen in love with Mathilde through the stories her Uncle Drosselmeyer tells, not realizing that Mathilde is a real person. Clara is caring and gentle, fascinated by books and stories and determined to do good in the world; she reads as very feminine to me, despite her unwillingness to marry and her discomfort with some other gendered expectations. She wants to devote her life to charity, an unusual but respectable life path for women in her society:
Except now her mother kept talking about how perhaps she’d meet some nice boy at the party. She stroked Clara’s hair, which was just as long and blonde as her own. “I can’t understand this not wanting to marry. Won’t you be lonely, sweetheart?”
She means well, Clara reminded herself. She just wants me to be happy. “I want to be a district visitor. I’ll go around asking if the poor people need anything, and then raise funds so they can have proper food and medicine, and write to different tradesmen to help them find work. Or I’ll make sure all the women in the Royal Society for the Protection of Ladies’ houses have warm petticoats while they’re in training—or organize amusements at the children’s hospitals, so they have something cheery to motivate them to take their medicine. Or I’d love to be a baby superintendent at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.” She beamed at her own reflection, cornflower blue eyes meeting their match.
Clara’s incredibly sweet personality is balanced by her awkwardness around other people and by her consuming interest in books, which only Uncle Drosselmeyer takes seriously. She has trouble putting her favorite book down to attend a party. Like many fans, she not only reads the book over and over, but excitedly analyzes and identifies where it draws influence from other stories:
“Yes. You see, the Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English. But she’s also like Britomart from the Faerie Queen, except with a motivation other than courtly love. And she’s a metaphor for how Jesus fought Satan during the Harrowing of Hell, because in the Middle Ages the unicorn represents Jesus,” Clara said eagerly, twisting her hands in excitement as she spoke.
“Oh, Clara, I’m sure he doesn’t want a lecture,” her mother began, but Uncle Drosselmeyer shook his head.
“No, go on, this is all quite fascinating.”
Clara beamed at his encouragement. “Besides that, the fact she’s dressed all in one color means that she’s like the Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who asked Gawain to chop off his head on Christmas Eve and then walks away without a scratch on him. Furthermore, the fact that she was slain in battle, but was spirited away by a wizard to lie in a deathless sleep and will one day return to free her county? That’s just like the legend of King Arthur, and how Merlin—or was it the Lady of the Lake?—spirited him away to Avalon, which in turn references the resurrection of Christ.” She sat back, breathless and proud.
It’s very common in real life for autistic people to have a strong need for justice and fairness, and to become involved in charity or activism as a result. But it’s a trait I don’t often see represented in fiction, perhaps because it conflicts with NT ideas about all autistic people having low empathy. I don’t see many autistic characters with sweet, gentle personalities like Clara’s, so that’s nice to read. To a lesser extent, even a special interest in fiction – one of the most common special interests for autistic women – is less represented in fiction than in reality. Clara displays all these traits very well and is likable for them.
There are a few aspects of Clara’s characterization that didn’t work for me quite as well, mainly because they feel like unsupported statements. Mathilde gushes in the second half of the story over Clara’s courage, after Clara turns the tide of battle by throwing a shoe at the Rat King. But the actual dramatic shoe-throwing is the sole courageous act in a scene that Clara mostly spends cowering at the sidelines. It is realistic for a person with Clara’s personality and background to freeze up in a battle, and it does take real courage to overcome that response and throw a shoe. But overall, I’m not convinced that Clara is any braver than Mathilde or the other soldiers in that battle scene, so the repeated glowing references to her courage feel oversold.
Similarly, we’re told that only “an act of pure unselfishness” can revive Mathilde from her doll form; Clara unknowingly performs this act by caring for the doll after an upsetting event. She creates a sling for the doll’s broken arm, carefully brushes its hair, and knits it a tiny scarf. Certainly, Clara is a sweet and unselfish person. But actions like brushing the doll’s hair and knitting have two purposes. They’re acts of kindness, but they also are soothing, repetitive sensory acts, exactly the type of thing Clara would realistically need to do to calm herself down, especially since the doll of Mathilde also ties in to her special interest. Selling these actions as uniquely, purely unselfish doesn’t quite sit right with me, because it erases the sensory benefit that they have for Clara and the very real usefulness that such activities have for many autistic people’s self-regulation in real life.
This may be partly a matter of differing definitions of unselfishness, though. I’ve encountered people who say that nothing is ever actually unselfish and I don’t actually want to have that philosophical argument right now. I just wish that the sensory benefits of brushing and knitting were addressed a bit more in the text.
In addition to using the original story as source material, “The Prince and Her Dreamer” also draws heavily from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. The second half of that ballet contains a lot of short dances by different candy-themed characters and not a lot of plot. Bashe nods to the structure of this section while using it in a more interesting way – showing the psychological effect that it has on Mathilde to come home to her kingdom after so much time away, and the ambivalent responses from some of her subjects after such a long period of absence and war.
I was not super fond of another interlude near the end, in which Drosselmeyer – previously an ally to Clara – tries to convince her that what she saw in Mathilde’s kingdom was not real. He does it as a test to see if she is worthy of Mathilde. I’m not sure how I feel about vulnerability to gaslighting as a sign of worthiness or lack thereof, especially when Clara already convinced everyone of her selflessness and courage (and especially when autistic people ARE more vulnerable to this form of abuse than others, since we’ll take statements by a trusted person at their literal face value). But Clara passes the test, and Mathilde rightly is angry with Drosselmeyer when she finds out what happened.
Overall, I wasn’t as thoroughly won over by “The Prince and Her Dreamer” as I was by “Graveyard Sparrow,” the other book of Bashe’s that I’ve reviewed here. But it’s a sweet-natured queer romance with a very soft, gentle autistic heroine of a type that we don’t see often enough in fiction, and I think many of my readers will enjoy the result.
The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it
Disclosure: Ennis Bashe and I are friends on Twitter. I reviewed their book because they offered me a review copy.
If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.