Yet another fairy tale retelling by Cameron Dokey! I hope she never stops writing these. Before Midnight is based loosely on “Cinderella” and it makes some really interesting changes to the familiar tale. Cendrillon (“child of cinders”—Cinderella’s name in Perrault’s French fairy tales) was born just before midnight, as one day ends and another begins. Her mother died soon after, one life ending as another begins. Her father, away on the king’s business, returns two weeks later with a baby boy, who he leaves to be raised alongside his daughter—but he wants nothing to do with either of them. The boy, Raoul, has no knowledge of his family and Cendrillon’s father blames her for his beloved wife’s death and he tells no one that his daughter even exists. He essentially curses the ground where his wife is buried, ensuring that nothing will thrive there, and he lives with no intention of ever returning.
Under the guidance of Old Mathilde—the godmother with just a touch of wishing magic, Raoul and Cendrillon grow up as good friends, working hard alongside the servants to keep the huge, old, isolated stone house and estate running smoothly. One day, Niccolo, an injured messenger from the neighboring hostile kingdom, shows up at their door. Instead of treating him as an enemy, they take him in, feeding him and healing him. He becomes friends with Raoul and Cendrillon—love overcomes suspicion and bonds are formed between enemies.
One day, word arrives that Cendrillon’s father has remarried because the king insisted on it. The stepmother and two stepsisters arrive at the house, essentially sent away from court as inconveniences. They know nothing of Cendrillon and assume that she’s a servant—for months, she does nothing to make them think otherwise. Anastasia, the younger stepsister, is cruel to Cendrillon. The stepmother is icy and removed. Yet, in the end, love wins them over as well. Cendrillon is embraced as another daughter, and Anastasia often marvels that Cendrillon is so kind to her. I found this to be a welcome change to the story—people who are unapologetically selfish and cruel can get pretty boring. The stepsisters find love, though not always smoothly, and soon the stepmother, stepsisters, Old Mathilde, Cendrillon, Raoul, and Niccolo are a united front against whatever the world might bring against them.
And court intrigues and scheming fathers and corrupt royal mothers all come into play. There are beautiful dresses and a ball that’s over before it begins. Pumpkins are a recurring theme, often representing hope. The story has familiar themes and a happy ending, but the plot takes a different route to get there.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Definitions of family vary widely. After some tough transitions, the stepmother truly does take in Cendrillon as one of her own daughters. The love Cendrillon’s mother had for her daughter and her husband lives on beyond her death. But Cendrillon’s father isn’t family to her in any way but blood. Raoul is like a brother, and eventually so is Niccolo. Old Mathilde is like a mother or grandmother to them all. Family is what you make of it—it’s not determined by blood or marriage.
There is some magic around weather and plants. Storms rise up to mirror what’s happening in the world. The gardens produce unpredictable yields, such as an apple orchard producing oranges or pears, and sunflowers springing up overnight. There are a lot of metaphors in all of this that the more poetical reader can explore, but they also don’t hold the story up. Wishing is its own kind of magic, with some wishes being more powerful than others. Not all wishes come true—at least not the first time you wish them—and many come true in unexpected ways.
Love is the most powerful magic of all. There is such a thing as love at first sight, and sometimes it’s unexpected and confusing. It’s also redemptive, bringing peace and healing. There are many kinds of love—romantic, platonic, familial—and they’re all powerful in their way.
There is some kissing and there’s some discussion of how romantic love does and doesn’t feel—Cendrillon and Raoul love each other dearly, but they learn it’s platonic and not romantic. The romance is sweet, sincere, and PG rated.
The only death is that of Cendrillon’s mother, but it happens in the first few pages. The birth is early, sudden, and violent, but the reader experiences that mostly through descriptions of the storm that accompanies it. Her death is peaceful—she knows it’s coming, she comes to terms with it, and she dies with her daughter in her arms after getting Old Mathilde to promise to raise the girl and protect her from her father’s hatred and neglect—her love for her husband means she knows him well and can predict how he will react to her death. Her death resonates through the rest of the story as Cendrillon and her father grieve and try to come to terms with it in their own ways. There is some explicit discussion about the process of moving from grieving to mourning to recovery.
As with most of Cameron Dokey’s books, the text is reflective and emotionally thought provoking. This book is suitable for a reader old enough to want to think a bit about the nature of love, wishes, and grief. I’d recommend it for ages 10 and up. It’s not my favorite of Dokey’s fairy tales, but that’s a bit like saying it isn’t my favorite kind of cake—I still loved it and devoured it in under a day. And I really appreciated her twist on the stepmother and stepsisters.