On my daughter’s bookshelf, there sits a two-volume collection of stories entitled The World’s Greatest Fairy Tales. All the usual culprits are in there—“Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Pied Piper”—in addition to a few stories I had never heard of before. Stories like “Snow White and Rose Red,” “The Lion and the Carpenter,” and “The Three Hairs of the Ogre” (this was way before Shrek was a household name). I read some of them recently and was struck by their overall themes of friendship, loyalty, and (yes) true love.
Can we see fairy tales in our lives today? I believe that author Regina Doman would have to answer that question with a resounding yes. Her newest book, The Midnight Dancers, showcases the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” while making it easily accessible for a modern audience. The end result is a highly readable story of how one man changes a family’s life for the better. (Full disclosure: Regina Doman is a writer for Hollywood Jesus.)
The Midnight Dancers begins in the Middle East as the reader is introduced to Paul Fester and Col. Robert Durham, both in the military. When a blast injures Durham, Paul helps out with his treatment. Eventually, the two discover that they have a connection in the town of Bayside, Maryland, where Col. Durham lives (Paul is planning to juggle at a festival there during the summer).
The story then skips to the present, as the reader is brought into the Durham household. Rachel is the eldest of fourteen children and is quite resentful of her parent’s tight leash on the family. Since his return from duty, all things seem to center around church, with no opportunity for discussion otherwise. This causes much resentment and frustration among the kids.
When Rachel and her sisters rearrange their room one evening, they discover a hidden doorway in the wall that leads to the nearby ocean. The girls choose to keep it a closely guarded secret, using it to get out of the house and go for midnight swims. This soon becomes midnight boat rides, thanks to a group of guys from their church.
But Rachel wants more. Specifically, she wants to go to the nearby island and see what’s there. It turns out that in addition to a rather elegant mansion, there is a guy named Michael who shows an interest in the girls and invites them to dance there on their midnight escapades. But is he who he seems to be?
Col. Durham soon begins to suspect that something is up. He finds Paul and has him do some undercover work to expose what the girls are actually doing. As he stealthily follows the girls nightly to the island, he enlists two of the kids to learn and help him in his shows. Although the girls enjoy Paul’s company, Rachel doesn’t. She’s trying to figure out who she is and what she stands for, even as the dances continue and spiral ever so close to danger. But is Paul who he seems to be? How long will the dances continue? How long will the secret passage remain a secret? And will Col. Durham be able to effectively relate to Rachel and his daughters again?
Since I had never read “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I began reading the book. I had no reason to worry. Doman has a talent for taking the old and making it new again, carefully preserving the timeless themes in the process. It helps that she added both a family tree of the Durham family (a sixteen-member family can be quite confusing) and Grimm’s actual fairy tale into The Midnight Dancers, the latter providing a nice perspective of the liberties taken to retell the story.
The lessons contained in the story are many, so I’ll focus on two. First, Doman provides a subtle reminder that first appearances can be ultimately deceiving. Michael’s family owns the house on the island and seems good-natured and amicable at first. But over time, he begins to bring his friends to the dances, adding an air of danger to the midnight excursions (Of course, it’s also important to know when to get out of a potentially dangerous situation). Rachel and her sisters see the warning signs of something brewing, but choose not to deal with it effectively. By the time Michael’s duplicity is exposed, it’s almost too late for the girls—and Paul. In order to really know a person, one has to be around them, spend time with them, and not gauge their opinion totally on feelings. A person’s veneer of smoothness and control can be whittled away, revealing something different than first thought. Jesus reminded his followers that “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit . . . Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:18-20 [NIV]).
Secondly, Rachel provides an interesting point of discussion when she finds out that Paul has been spying on their dances. During the inevitable confrontation, he points out that he won’t reveal the secret to her father, but wants her to do it instead. She then has to decide just how important the girls’ secret is—and decides that it’s worth telling a lie that could destroy Paul. James mentions that our tongues are capable of doing good, but also doing harm—enough to start a fire (see James 3:5). The fire Rachel’s words start threaten the lives of not only herself, but her other eleven sisters. Today, some people attempt to keep sins like addictions, jealousy, and even infidelity a closely guarded secret. But how important is that secret to maintain? Who is being hurt in the process? What would exposing it to the light of knowledge cost? The answers could be life-changing.
Stories like The Midnight Dancers are reminders that fairy tales can exist in our troubled times. The question is whether we’re willing to look and make them (and their timeless themes) a reality.