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Intro

In A Nutshell

If you're like us, you've probably wondered why Cinderella was so obedient all the time. Wash this, scrub that, live in filth 24/7—why would anyone in their right mind follow all those orders?

Author Gail Carson Levine has an answer: she was cursed.

In Ella Enchanted, Levine populates a fantasyland (Kyrria) with magical characters and a fleshed-out version of the Cinderella fairy tale in which Ella obeys her wicked stepmother because she literally can't say no. Along the way, the novel addresses Important Stuff like free will, friendship, and love.

See, the rather dimwitted fairy Lucinda thinks obedience is a blessing. That's why she bestowed it on Ella Enchanted's Ella at birth. Problem is, anytime someone gives Ella a direct order, she must follow it, or the spell will make her dizzy or nauseous or worse. That may be fine (if a little annoying) if the people you live with are generally kind, but what if they order you to give them your mother's prized necklace? Or dump your best friend? Or hop on one foot for a day and a half? Or betray your king and husband?

Yeah. Not too cool. As you can imagine, Ella's life goes from bad to worse when her mom dies and her dad remarries (wait for it…) an odious woman with mean-spirited daughters.

But this isn't your classic Disney tale. By revising the "Cinderella" story, Levine is able to put a twist on traditional fairy tales. What if all those obedient girls didn't choose to be that way? What if the princess was really good at ogre languages? What if she didn't fall in love after a half hour of anonymous dancing at a ball, but instead made a friend first? What if the princess turned out to be pretty good at rescuing herself?

Ella Enchanted won a bunch of awards when it was published in 1997, including being named as Newbery Honor Book. It's easy to see why. Ella navigates challenges from finishing school to an ogre-infested forest, but until she can be free of the obedience curse, her life, and the lives of those she loves, will never be safe. It's a good thing she's so smart—and stubborn.

 

Why Should I Care?

Does free will exist? Are our actions predestined? If there is such a thing as fate, can individuals fight or change their fates?

No answer? Don't look at us. More stuffy old philosophers than we can count have explored the issue of free will, so it's not surprising that we ordinary folks can't figure it out. But we sure can ask the questions.

Gail Carson Levine explores these questions by making them literal: Ella must follow orders thanks to a fairy's "blessing." But because she resents the spell, she finds ways to resist and subvert the orders: when directed to fetch some nuts for baking, she comes back with only two, or when told to pick up a dust ball, she does so and also throws it in her nasty stepsister's face.

Here's the thing: maybe those of us not living in a fairy tale don't get dizzy when we decide to disobey, but there are still consequences that can make it pretty hard to disobey, even when we think there's a good reason—like getting grounded, or failing a class, or even going to jail.

The right to protest is one of Americans' basic rights, and most people would say that civil disobedience is, too. If we were all under obedience compulsions, how would civil rights protestors ever have gotten anything done? Would women still be denied the vote, and would African-Americans still be going to separate schools?

And this raises an important point. The power to make your own decisions is a huge responsibility. It's not about deciding whether or not to eat your dessert before dinner; it's about making the right life choices.

Look, no one is saying that six-year-olds should be able to decide what time they go to bed. But at what age do you get to start making your own decisions? And—more importantly—how grown up are you, really, if you're still doing the right thing because you have to rather than because you want to?

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