In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

My elder daughter just read The Nutcracker (this version, by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Janet Schulman) aloud to me for the first time. It’s a milestone, given how many times I’ve read it aloud to her during the first six years of her life. The book is old and well-worn, my own beloved copy from elementary school. When she was only three, we took her to see a ballet version for Christmas (more on that magical day here), and the experience of watching her mesmerized by the show was as enchanting as the performance itself. As much as I love the ballet and Tchaikovsky’s score, I appreciate the attention Schulman pays to the backstory (also from Hoffmann’s original material)—where we readers learn of the vain and ungrateful Princess Pirlipat and the curse that befalls her and our admirable Nutcracker.

The Toymaker’s Apprentice works as a revision of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker, and both stories can help us to see Christmas itself in new ways.

In The Toymaker’s Apprentice, Sherri L. Smith takes the story even further, with a spell-binding middle-grade novel perfect for fans of The Nutcracker. I discovered the book in a local bookstore, where I always wend my way to a beautifully-displayed children’s section. I found the book featured on the shelf and was drawn to the cover artwork—a large clock with the silhouette of a boy beneath the face and the many-headed mouse king (among other rodent characters) looking down at the shadowy figure. Each of the three sections of the novel begins with an illustration as well, though those are simpler black and white images. The pictures play with the mechanical themes and symbols within the novel—a sort of collage of cogs—and I only wish there were more of them throughout the text.

The story bounces back and forth between the worlds of Stefan Drosselmeyer (our titular character) and Ernst Listz, a worldly-wise rat who becomes tutor to the seven-headed mouse princelings. We learn the conflict between Stefan’s uncle, the clockmaker Christian Drosselmeyer and the royal family of Boldavia; it seems Christian’s pride is responsible for aggravating the mice beneath Boldavia, and the murine queen cursed Princess Pirlipat in retaliation. Now, cursed to wander for seven years in search of the legendary krakatook (that may not exist), Christian takes Stefan under his wing as the mice kingdom beneath Boldavia prepares for war. Despite the escalating action throughout the novel, the epic Christmas Eve battle doesn’t begin until the third and final section of the book. It’s a lot of backstory, but Smith enriches the tale and adds her own touches with rodent politics, complex communities of talking animals, a sacrificial quest, and, of course, a sweet romance.

One of the strengths of the story is Ernst’s perspective. We meet him first as a balladeer in a bar, singing the sad warning song of Hameln. When he joins the royal court of Boldavia, we see his foreboding about the queen’s ambition:

Trembling like the newborn princes, Ernst bent over in an awkward bow, chilled to the bone. The mouselings were not the monstrosities he imagined after all. The real monster was the one who had made them.

Both Christian and the queen suffer for their pride, and each one passes along a legacy of strife and violence to their kin. But where Christian works to heal and undo the curse, the mouse queen employs dark magic to conceive a son with seven heads (each named after a conqueror from the human world). She nourishes them with stories of war and conquest, only to be undone by Stefan’s stamping foot at the moment he releases Pirlipat from the curse. Stefan’s accident is the undoing of the mouse queen and her line—a fury for revenge that maddens the mouse king(s) with visions of overthrowing humanity.

A second strength of the book is Smith’s clockwork theology, which winds its way through the story as the mechanism that keeps the city of Nuremberg (and, ostensibly) the world, running. It makes the scene of Drosselmeyer and the grandfather clock from the ballet eerier and more telling. In this version, the mouse king does not die by shoe or sword but by key. As Christian explains,

“It’s a soul sieve. An unwinding key. A rare clockmaker’s took for unmaking. The Brotherhood wouldn’t have given it to us if it hadn’t been our last hope.” The filigreed scrollwork on either side of the key was now darkened with blood. Christian pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the key down before putting it back in its sack. “It’s a difficult thing, the unmaking of souls.”

Stefan uses this weapon against the mouse king, many chapters after learning that there is no reversal process; the book opens with his own mother’s funeral, and there is no way to rewind her key. The scene speaks to the terrible choice to end a life, even the life of an adversary who sought Stefan’s destruction. It’s also a typical maneuver in children’s literature to absolve the protagonist of guilt because he didn’t really know what he was doing. It’s problematic, as always, because Stefan chose to fight and to defend himself and his home city, though the process of taking a life turned out more gruesome than he anticipated.

In this revision, we see more of the ethics of the battle between Rodentia and the human world, and we sympathize with Ernst and the mice because we see so much more of their perspective. One of the reasons I love to read revisions (and I use that word not to be belittling, but in its broadest sense of seeing a story again in a new way) is that they change my perspective. I couldn’t listen to my daughter read The Nutcracker, nor can I watch the ballet again, without a bit of Smith’s story slipping into my interpretive experience. That’s the power of perspective and the practice of looking, and looking again.

Whereas most renditions of The Nutcracker emphasize the Land of Sweets, the exotic dances, and the toys come to life, Smith’s is a different sort of Christmas story. It’s fun, for sure, but in a way that asks difficult questions about our motives and actions. Instead of a triumphant human infant, we see the demise of a monstrous mouse king. Yet in all the versions, a monstrous mouse is a bit of an oxymoron; Smith’s work makes clear that they are overwhelming not by size but by sheer numbers and gnashing tenacity. And if they are, indeed, monstrous, it’s worth asking why, even if the ending stays the same.

I would like to have seen a stronger, more prominent role for Marie, and I think that more sophisticated readers even in the age range will not be duped by the faked death plot in the middle of the book (no more spoilers here, but I don’t think that one worked). That said, I think If the battle with the mouse king represents the vanquishing of evil, we must look within ourselves for the seeds of that sin as well; Stefan is triumphant but not innocent. And if the sojourn in the Land of Sweets serves as rebirth and victory parade, we must beware of toothache and overindulgence, lest we forget the cost of the party. Both stories are ornate yet center around the simpler story of the Christ child, whose triumph and gift are perfect and pure. We can see The Nutcracker and ourselves in new ways each Christmas, but one story remains forever unchanged.