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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835

A Curse Dark as Gold is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, set at a rural wool mill just before the Industrial Revolution. The author, Elizabeth Bunce, preserves Rumpelstiltskin’s magic but discards the flat, stale characters that often populate fairy tale plots. Bunce’s characters are fully fleshed out, operating with...

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A Curse Dark as Gold is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, set at a rural wool mill just before the Industrial Revolution. The author, Elizabeth Bunce, preserves Rumpelstiltskin’s magic but discards the flat, stale characters that often populate fairy tale plots. Bunce’s characters are fully fleshed out, operating with realistic motivations in the face of both real and magical challenges.

When Charlotte Miller’s father dies, she inherits Stirwaters Woolen Mill. Practical and stubborn, Charlotte has already handled much of Stirwaters’s business for years. Rosie, her hotheaded younger sister, does machinery and repair work. The townspeople are doubtful that two teenage girls can manage a mill on their own, but Charlotte is determined to keep Stirwaters open because the residents of Shearing, the small town where she lives, depend on Stirwaters for their livelihoods.

Stirwaters been in the Miller family for generations. All of the mill’s managers have died young, as have their firstborn sons. Not once has a son inherited the mill directly from his father. Instead, the business has been passed to cousins and grandsons—and now to a daughter. Because of this strange history, the people of Shearing believe Stirwaters bears a curse.

Charlotte does not believe in the curse. She dismisses it as superstition and turns her attention to practical challenges instead. Pinchfields, a rival mill that makes cheaper fabric, wants to buy Stirwaters to adopt its older, more respected name. Charlotte refuses to sell, but she faces strong pressure both from Pinchfields and from her Uncle Wheeler, an idle, flamboyant man who insists Charlotte and Rosie should quit working and get married.

Charlotte’s problems intensify when she learns that her father placed a large mortgage on the mill before he died. The managers of his bank, Uplands Mercantile, assume that a teenage girl cannot be trusted with such a large debt. They send an employee, Randall Woodstone, to collect the entire amount immediately. Randall is impressed by Charlotte’s hard work. He convinces the bank to hold off on collecting the loan for a short time. Even with this reprieve, however, Charlotte must make the mill earn more money than it ever has in the past.

Determined to make her loan payment on time, Charlotte puts her employees to work making a large run of fine fabric. Everything goes wrong at once: equipment fails, workers get injured, and much of the cloth is destroyed by a mysterious saboteur. As Charlotte tries to cope with each of these problems, she receives a letter from the Wool Guild, barring her from selling any of her stock at Worm Hill, the wool market where her business has traditionally earned almost all its income. The townsfolk grumble about the Stirwaters curse, but Charlotte refuses to believe that supernatural forces are contributing to her misfortunes.

Rosie, however, is not as practical as Charlotte. When it seems certain that the girls will default on their loan and lose the mill, Rosie performs a magic spell she found in one of her father’s notebooks. A man appears and promises to help. He calls himself Jack Spinner, but this is an obvious pseudonym; a jackspinner is a man who runs a mill tool called the spinning jack. Spinner transforms a pile of straw into hundreds of spools of beautiful gold thread. In return, he asks for a ring that belonged to Charlotte’s mother. Though Charlotte is sorry to lose her ring, she accepts the bargain in order to save the mill.

After Spinner’s visit, Charlotte accompanies Uncle Wheeler, who is still pressuring her to sell the mill, to the city of Harrowgate. Behind Wheeler’s back, Charlotte sells Jack Spinner’s gold thread and makes her bank payment on time. Randall Woodstone, the banker, is impressed that Charlotte managed to earn so much money so quickly. But when Charlotte snubs the representative of Pinchfields who makes yet another offer on the mill, Uncle Wheeler is furious. Charlotte later sees Wheeler meeting secretly with Pinchfields employees, and on the way home she learns he has a secret gambling addiction. She begins to grow suspicious of her uncle’s intentions.

After the sale of the gold thread, Charlotte and the mill experience a few small successes. Although she is still barred from domestic wool markets, Charlotte manages to make a deal to sell her cloth overseas. Randall Woodstone visits Shearing during the harvest festival and asks Charlotte to marry him. Charlotte is nervous about the idea, but he agrees to rent a house in Shearing and avoid interfering with Charlotte’s business at Stirwaters. Charlotte decides to marry him.

Shortly after the wedding, disaster sets in again. A sudden deep freeze cracks the Stirwaters mill wheel, rendering it unusable. The mysterious saboteur returns and destroys the mill’s entire stock of cloth. Randall offers to help but Charlotte refuses to let him, instead calling on Jack Spinner again. This time Spinner weaves a supply of fine cloth in exchange for a silver timepiece, a gift Charlotte received from Randall on their honeymoon.

Charlotte is now pregnant, and suddenly the Stirwaters curse seems much more threatening. The “curse” has killed the firstborn son of every miller for generations past. Charlotte becomes obsessed with finding the source of the curse. She pours over the mill’s records to find out its secrets, but she does not find the information she needs.

One afternoon, one of Charlotte’s employees, Bill Penny, reveals that he was the saboteur who damaged her cloth. When he confesses, he is drunk and confused. He says “the master” pressured him to destroy the cloth. Charlotte fires him, and later that night, the mill’s woodshed catches fire. The entire town helps to put it out. The mill is saved, but Bill Penny is killed. Convinced that Bill Penny’s “master” must be Uncle Wheeler, Charlotte accuses Wheeler of masterminding the sabotage against Stirwaters. Although he puts off her accusation, he does not convince her that he is trustworthy.

The insurance settlement on the mill pays off the mortgage to Uplands and Mercantile, but Charlotte soon finds out that she has yet another debt to pay. Uncle Wheeler has borrowed a great deal of money in Charlotte’s name. If she does not come up with an enormous sum overnight, she will lose everything. She summons Jack Spinner a third time.

Desperate, Charlotte promises Spinner that she will pay any price, any at all, if he will save her mill again. Spinner agrees, but he warns her that she will not want to give up what he asks. Spinner clearly has no trouble fixing Charlotte’s money problems. He simply confuses the bankers so they forgive the debt and put the mill back into Charlotte’s name. Spinner says he will come later to collect his fee. Charlotte, though relieved to be back in control of the mill, cannot help but worry about what this fee might be.

Not long later, Charlotte’s son, William, is born. Her marriage with Randall is suffering, however, and she has trouble sleeping with her worry about her husband and new son. One night she hears scuffling in Randall’s office, and she finds Uncle Wheeler there, looking for money. He tells Charlotte to get out while she can. “When he comes back—and believe me, he will be back—all bets are off.” Charlotte, unsure what Wheeler means, kicks her uncle out and tells him never to return.

Charlotte spends almost all of her time thinking about Stirwaters—and almost none of it thinking about her young husband. In addition to running the mill, she continues to research the history of the curse. One night it occurs to her to look behind a strange wall that is painted with a hex sign. There she finds records of the original opening of the mill. She reads about a horrible drowning of a boy during the installation of the first Stirwaters mill wheel. Horrified that this might have been the source of the curse, she returns home. There she finds Randall packing his bags. Charlotte realizes that Randall will probably be safer if he leaves Shearing, so she does not ask him to stay.

Soon Jack Spinner returns to collect his payment for their bargain. He does not demand a piece of Charlotte’s jewelry as she expects. Instead, he wants her son. When Charlotte protests that she cannot give William up, Spinner offers her a choice: her son or the mill. Spinner gives her until the following Sunday evening to decide which she will choose.

Knowing she cannot make Spinner’s payment, Charlotte realizes her only choice is to end the curse. She pieces together more evidence from the records she found in her wall. She believes the father of the drowned boy was murdered and that he laid the Stirwaters curse. On All Hallows’ Eve, Charlotte travels alone to the crossroads where she thinks this man died. On the road, she runs into Uncle Wheeler. By now she believes he is also wrapped up in the curse in some way, so she makes him come along.

At the crossroads, Charlotte witnesses a group of ghosts reenacting a murder. The man who died, John Simple, was the same man who has repeatedly appeared to Charlotte as Jack Spinner. Simple, it turns out, was the original owner of the Stirwaters’ land as well as the father of the boy who drowned during the mill’s construction. Simple fought against the mill, especially after his son’s death, and this angered the men who were building Stirwaters: Harlan Miller, Charlotte’s ancestor, and Malton Wheeler, the ancestor of Uncle Wheeler. Miller and Wheeler accused Simple of witchcraft and had him killed. Just before he died, Simple promised that he would take away everything Miller and Wheeler held dear.

After watching the ghostly reenactment, Charlotte takes a jar of earth from the site of the murder and returns home. On the way, she learns that Jack Spinner has often helped Uncle Wheeler with his problems, just as Charlotte has. Wheeler, too, is running away from Spinner, unable to give up his most valuable possession: his name, which identifies him as a member of the aristocracy rather than a simple commoner.

Uncle Wheeler steals Charlotte’s carriage and precedes her back to Stirwaters. She rushes after him as quickly as she can. When she finally arrives, she learns that Wheeler has stolen William and run into the mill, apparently trying pay his own debt with Charlotte’s child. The mill has magically closed itself off to anyone except Charlotte, so she goes in alone. She faces Jack Spinnner—whom she now knows as John Simple—and makes him tell his story. She promises to make his story public and give him a Christian burial. In return, he will end the curse and leave her uncle and son alone. Simple accepts her offer, and the Stirwaters curse is broken.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070

Author: Elizabeth C. Bunce

First published: 2008

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: 1700s

Locale: Europe

Principal characters

Charlotte Miller, the eldest Miller daughter and operator of Stirwaters mill

Rosie Miller, Charlotte's younger sister

James Miller, Charlotte's father and previous owner of Stirwaters mill

Uncle Wheeler, Charlotte's uncle and legal guardian after Charlotte's father's death; caretaker of the mill

Randall Woodstone, Charlotte's husband, a city bank mortgage officer

Jack Spinner, a man who offers supernatural aid to the Millers whenever they are in danger of losing Stirwaters mill

The Story

Charlotte and Rosie, the daughters of James Miller, have just inherited the family mill, Stirwaters, after their father's passing. The other local mill owners, the Pinchfields, want to buy the mill to put it out of business, but Stirwaters has been owned by the Millers ever since anyone can remember. Faced with no money and no one else to run the mill, Charlotte steps up and assumes control of operations until their distant Uncle Wheeler comes from the city to fulfill his dead brother's wish that he take charge. Unfortunately for Charlotte and Rosie, Uncle Wheeler's only substantial plans for a sound future are to sell the mill and marry the daughters off, so to protect their inheritance, the sisters must take matters into their own hands in an era and society where women have little to no power.

The sisters soon find that there is a substantial mortgage on Stirwaters that their father took out and that they must pay back. Fortunately, the mortgage man from the bank, Randall Woodstone, is a generous man and sees potential within the mill to make money. He convinces the bank to continue the mortgage, but insists that the sisters make a large payment on the loan by the end of the summer. With no money to pay workers to make product, all seems lost for the mill until a strange man calling himself Jack Spinner shows up. Jack tells Charlotte that he will take a room full of straw and spin it into a room full of golden thread in exchange for a cheap ring that belonged to Charlotte's late mother. Charlotte accepts the offer, and everything seems fine again, for a while.

There is also another problem: many people in the village believe that there is a curse on Stirwaters. Rumors circulate: the mill cannot be fixed up; no dyes other than a certain blue can be used in any fabric made at the mill; and no son born in the Miller family can inherit the property. Charlotte does not believe these rumors, but they seem to hold true as the season continues. Meanwhile, she marries Randall Woodstone and becomes pregnant.

When the river freezes in the winter and snaps the main rod of the water wheel at the mill, everything seems to be lost again. The sisters once again cannot afford to pay workers, and they run dangerously low on fabric. Again any hopes of keeping the mill seem lost, especially after a local man burns down the millhouse. Once again, Jack Spinner comes and rescues the mill by doing what seems impossible. Again, he asks only for a small token in exchange—this time a brooch given to Charlotte by Randall. But as soon as the sisters seem out of each predicament, they are thrust back in by something else, either fate or bad decisions by the men around them.

Finally, as Charlotte is about to have her baby, she finds out that she is held responsible for a number of debts that her uncle, who has forged her signature, has incurred. The mill seems lost for sure, and again Jack Spinner appears, this time with a very different offer. When Charlotte's son is born, Jack presents her with the biggest decision of her life: she can save the mill and her family, but to do so she must give her newborn son to Jack Spinner. Charlotte must look within herself and to her family and its legacy and make a decision that will affect everyone. Of course, as in the original fairy tale, Charlotte finds another option, learning Jack Spinner's true identity as the vengeful spirit of a man wronged by Charlotte's ancestors and using this knowledge to break the hold he has long had over her family.

Critical Evaluation

As a retelling of the fairytale “Rumplestiltskin,” A Curse Dark as Gold adds a new perspective and depth to the centuries-old narrative. While the role of the miller's daughter is integral to the original plot, the character herself is flat, almost without an identity except as a daughter and a woman who can bear children. It is the strange visitor who has the power within the story, and that power rests within his name. Bunce's retelling puts the power of the story back into the hands of the female protagonist. Although Charlotte still finds herself caught within the patriarchal culture of eighteenth-century Europe, she finds a way to express herself and retain her own identity and autonomy as the men in her life try to take control.

From her uncle who wants to marry her away quickly to her eventual husband who wants nothing more than for her to give up her family mill and live with him in the city, Charlotte's life can be likened to an adolescent's in modern society. When her father dies, she is left on her own without any substantial guidance or training and she is stuck between two worlds: she knows she does not want someone else controlling her life, but she does not know exactly how to run her own. To this point, Charlotte has essentially been a child, and she must find her own identity and voice through the difficulties that she faces running the mill. With this depth, Bunce not only adds a feminist twist to the traditional fairytale by empowering Charlotte, but also one of the most important conventions of the young adult genre, the coming-of-age theme. In so doing, Bunce creates a very new and modern perspective on a traditional tale.

Further Reading

  • Clark, Ruth Cox. “Teen Savvy. Web Literate and Multi-Talented: New Authors and Their Debut Novels for Young Adults.” Library Media Connection Oct. 2009: 10–13. Literary Reference Center. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.
  • Gross, Claire E. Rev. of A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Horn Book Mar.–Apr. 2008: 213. Literary Reference Center. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.
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