Once upon a time there lived a dim-witted royal family, two inquisitive peasants, a quiet male hermit and a female hermit who spoke her mind.
If only, if only, thought the inhabitants of the kingdom as they went about their daily lives. If only I could be someone else. In the halls of Castle Corona, King Guido scratched at his heavy ceremonial robes and longed for a nap. His wife Queen Gabriella was tired of playing hostess. What would it be like to explore the jungle, she wondered, or meet a lion?
If children are the future, then the kingdom is doomed. Prince Gianni, heir to the throne, had a mind “like a large empty bowl. His tutors attempted to fill this bowl each day, but, to their endless frustration, the Prince had a way of emptying it with astonishing speed.” His younger brother Vito, the “Spare Prince,” yearned to vanquish all foes, real and imaginary, with his sword. And Princess Fabrizia? She had the courage of a very small mouse—one that swooned at the slightest insult to her many beautiful gowns.
Meanwhile, down in the peasant village, siblings Pia and Enzio dreamed of a better life. If only they had parents instead of a cruel master who called them dirty beetles. If only they had horses and gold and all the food they could eat. One day they find a mysterious pouch in the woods. Then the King’s men come to take them to the castle, and that’s when everything changes…
It’s been years since I read Sharon Creech, but I remember finishing Walk Two Moons and Ruby Holler and thinking she how great she was at writing quirky characters—who can forget Salamanca Tree Hiddle? The Castle Corona doesn’t disappoint. It pokes fun at traditional fairy tales by making the royal household completely over-the-top. There’s a Tutor of Walking who teaches Prince Gianni how to affect the perfect “princely stride.” Prince Vito has a Dresser, an assistant-to-the-Dresser and an assistant-to-the-assistant-to-the-Dresser, which begs the question just how many buttons are needed for one princely outfit. And when a thief invades the castle, the King gets updated by a bevy of Ministers: the Minister of Inventory of Table Linens, the Minister of Inventory of the Queen’s Jewels, the Minister of Inventory of Oats, etc. etc.
The characters are so ridiculous that they resemble caricatures, but Creech gives them a chance to grow. King Guido receives sporadic bouts of wisdom from a local hermit. Guido rarely understands the advice, but at least it makes him think. Queen Gabriella’s hermit is a lot more blunt, and there comes a moment when she forces Gabriella to confront her own past.
But the real power goes to the Wordsmith, who spins fabulous tales of spoiled princesses and noble peasants. Every time he tells a story, the royal family goes to bed dreaming of their better selves. Is it possible for a beautiful princess to also do something, wonders Fabrizia. Should a King forgive a thief who steals only to feed his family, ponders Guido. Pia and Enzio, of course, have been telling stories their entire lives, escaping their misery through imagination.
One night, the Wordsmith gathers them all—royal family, Pia and Enzio, both hermits—and tells them a story, one that explains the mysterious pouch and the orphans’ true parentage. That’s when the book ends, but the story doesn’t end there. Creech leaves plenty of room for the characters to choose their own futures. With enough perseverance and luck, they might even reach something resembling happily ever after—
Or at least mostly happily, most of the time…when there weren’t duels and thieves and such. The End.