#662 A young woman’s journey

The Brightest Thing
by Ruth Daniell

Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2019
$18.00 / 9781987915907

Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn

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New from Ruth Daniell of Kelowna is The Brightest Thing, a book that tells the journey of a nameless young woman through four sections of beautifully written poetry structured around fairy tales. Fairy tales, of course, are rich in archetypal content of continued relevance. Fairy tales will always be pervasive in our culture, will always be relatable to contemporary life and, in their retelling, will remain a helpful lens through which to look at the more difficult subjects in our lives and world.

Daniell uses fairy tales to great advantage. We open the collection to a first poem overflowing with rich and concrete details of innocence. The voice of this poetry collection, a nameless young woman, speaks of gathering eggs as a child, introducing us to the origins of the fairy tales that later intertwine with her experiences. The poems highlight the relationship between the young woman and her brother, and then we see a relationship between the young woman and a man, her partner. The section ends with a discussion of a well-known story known as Folk Tale Type 425C, or Beauty and the Beast, in which Beauty undergoes a significant break away from her family and ends up with the Beast, much as what happens to the young woman. She even compares her partner in the museum subtly to the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast on a Serbian stamp, 2015

The second part shows the young woman’s reawakening as she tells her story of trauma through a new series of fairy tales. Taken from her family by the White Bear, she finds the man – aptly personified by the White Bear itself – who will cause her trauma, and she enters into life with him. In Beauty we see her falling in love with the heart of this man because of his “requests for love rumbling / out like threats.” The section ends with Rapunzel, a first meeting of the princess and her prince. While not told in a linear fashion, we still understand the key moments of their relationship, drawn out for us between the lines of the well-aged stories and rich with their own natural parallels. By using the princess’s silenced voices, Daniell gives the nameless young woman a voice more powerful than the suffocating prince in the tales.

Rapunzel on a German stamp, 1978

The next section, “Learning to be Two,” begins and ends with opposing images of the young woman and her life. Daniell uses Hans Christian Anderson’s depression to show the mirrored feelings of the young woman. Daniell feels Anderson’s loneliness and, as a fellow writer, bonds with a shared ability to tell trauma and pain through stories of princesses and princes. A significant theme of The Brightest Thing is the support and love of family at difficult times. Daniell returns to this again and again to show us the beauty of the young woman’s familial world. In a happy turn of events, the final image of this section provides hopefulness and love, as well as promises that she will happily spend a fulfilling lifetime with a new partner.

The last section of The Brightest Thing opens with poems dedicated to the young woman’s parents, poems that show the reality of marriage as opposed to the expectations of “happily ever after” of fairy tales. This is because fairy tales generally end with weddings and no one gets to see what happens next. We don’t see the possible disagreements, breakups, and arguments that Daniell shows this woman experiencing. She ends with a poem full of happiness, growth, and positivity in the lines “Yes / To fruit and flowers, yes to magic, / Yes to touch, yes to paperwhites,” referencing the beautiful flower that grew only for the nameless young woman.

Ruth Daniell

Every poem in The Brightest Thing is strategically placed to create an understandable journey through a young women’s life. Daniell shows her rise and fall over and over through a cycle of emotions deeply expressed through metaphors and images of nature: the animals in each story (frog, bear), the perfectly placed flowers, and the beautifully simple comparisons to the moon. The necessary chaos in the collection is created through the non-linear placement of poems. It works wonderfully. Every poem is where it needs to be, placed with great care for the young woman and her journey.

Daniell also shows us the mind of a survivor: someone who found herself in the throats of all of those princesses and saved their voices, too, when she clawed her way out. This beautiful collection shows both fragility and resilience in the face of trauma. It tells a story about both sides of real love – not fairy tale love – through the young woman’s reality: the dark, lying excuse and the safe, comforting embrace.

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Myshara Herbert-McMyn

Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a student of English and Creative Writing at  Thompson Rivers University. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she published Ormsby Reviews of Tim Conley’s Collapsible and of Roo Phelps’ 11 Weeks: The Real-Time Chronicling of a Breakup. A True Story.

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Ruth Daniell. Photo by Michelle Appleton
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