Comics artist Sophia Wiedeman released the last of four installments of her comic, The Lettuce Girl, earlier this year, completing her charming and symbol-packed retelling of the Rapunzel story.
A tale that rarely occupies more than two or three pages of a Grimm collection here blossoms into a four-volume adventure that turns the familiar tale of the long-haired maiden in the tower on its head. In it, Wiedeman creates a compelling tale of a girl coming of age and her relationship with her foster mother, who also happens to have her imprisoned in a tower.
Wiedeman’s love for her characters is obvious in the way she draws them. The witch and the maiden occupy the majority of their panels, and there’s a focus on emotions in the hands and eyes. Her linework is easy for the reader to follow and yet a little scratchy, resembling at times those etchings so common in old published collections of fairy tales.
“But I wanted to examine these characters’ motives and histories like someone would in a novel or play,” Wiedeman tells me (the author graciously consented to an email interview for this article), “to not look at them like archetypes but to imagine what kind of people would actually do these things.”
Hazel (Wiedeman’s rendition of the Rapunzel character) is the most recent stolen child of many for Nell, a forest-dwelling witch. But the children she raises always grow up and leave, and Nell is dismayed by that sense of independence. As Hazel begins to ask why she can’t leave the tower, Nell realizes that her current “daughter,” too, will someday leave. So Nell decides she’s going to make a new child for herself, one that’s not stolen and won’t want to leave.
In addition to her various witchly pursuits, Nell tends to an unusually lush and alluring garden. And so, almost as if there were no other way to do it, Nell goes about creating a hydroponic baby. Both Nell’s heads of lettuce and her new child begin life as little beans, before sprouting into entirely different kinds of organisms. No father is necessary; indeed men are largely an afterthought in The Lettuce Girl, neither needed nor particularly wanted when they do appear. The result of Nell’s homunculus experiment, however, is a young man named Tom, a shade of Tom Thumb who is not quite what Nell had in mind.
“He’s independent, intelligent and willful, which is everything Nell resents in a child,” Wiedeman explains. And Nell is terrified when Tom starts reading books and discussing his desire to learn how to fly. Tom’s been around only a short time and he’s already talking about leaving.
Meanwhile, Hazel’s tower is visited by an Ula, a sea serpent searching for its mother. In Wiedeman’s tale, there is no prince and no kingdom, but the role of companion and provocateur is filled by the Ula.
“It was only later that I realized that the Ula actually works as a giant, obvious metaphor for sexuality and Hazel’s relationship with sex,” Wiedeman insists. “Though I didn’t intend for it to happen, that works for me. I get to talk about sex without talking about romance.” Thus Hazel’s ultimate liberation doesn’t require a princely husband: “The Ula is the thing that helps Hazel mature (and all that that implies) but he’s a friend, a helper, a bringer of knowledge, not a love interest. It’s all about her.”
Indeed little is lost by removing the prince from the story, and it has the effect of keeping the focus on Hazel and her personal journey. When Hazel finally does escape from the tower (much to Nell’s dismay), she sets out on an adventure of self-discovery. Somehow she ends up a captive of another, familiar sweet-toothed witch whose intentions are not nearly as innocent as Nell’s.
The Lettuce Girl is so named because Hazel, the heroine of our story, was promised to Nell in exchange for a head of lettuce. Wiedeman uses motifs of seeds, reproduction and growth throughout the book.
“I am obsessed with a few shapes in particular,” she says, “among them are bean shaped things, cells, and snake shapes. I just love drawing these things for my own pleasure. It’s a visual fixation as much as a story element.”
Perhaps Wiedeman never codified why she was drawn to these motifs, but the visual repetition and rhyme bring meaning to the story, suggesting growth and transformation. The book almost feels alive in your hands for it.
In the classic Grimm telling, Rapunzel is named for the rapunzel plant, a flower whose leaves were often eaten like spinach in medieval times. Apparently, tradition once suggested that a pregnant woman’s cravings should not only be indulged, but that denying them could prove dangerous. Note So in Wiedeman’s tale, a husband steals several heads of lettuce from Nell’s garden to satisfy his wife’s cravings, and when Nell catches him, she promises to spare the man’s life if he gives up his child. (In Grimm, the witch Gothel wants the child regardless of its sex; Wiedeman’s Nell only wants the child if it’s a girl.)
The Lettuce Girl explores the relationship between Hazel and her mother/captor Nell as an aspect of the former’s journey from captivity to freedom.
“The witch does not get ‘punished’ as in so many other fairy tales with ‘bad witches’,” Wiedeman says. “Her punishment is really just the loss of Rapunzel. She does not get pushed in an oven, forced to dance in red hot iron shoes, or any other sort of spectacular death. I was really fascinated by this.”
Even though Nell must let Hazel go in the end, she still has Tom, and has perhaps learned a few lessons herself. Nell is never evil, not like the other witch in the story. Wiedeman is able to write an incredible amount of emotion into Nell’s simply drafted eyes, and different readers might even find her more sympathetic than Hazel.
Nell is no typical terrifying enchantress. Sure, she threatens to kill a man if he doesn’t give up his child, but she’s actually kind of sweet in her way. She cooks and hugs and tells stories, and genuinely seems to want nothing more than to care for helpless things. Her methods, however, are clumsy and hamfisted, and driven by a kind of selfish loneliness.
“I feel for her so deeply,” Wiedeman tells me, “she’s so misguided in what it means to be a caregiver.”
“What kind of person would be so desperate for a kid they would barter, threaten and exploit for one, and then trap that child in a prison? I guess ultimately my answer was ‘a mom,'” Wiedeman said.
“I wanted her to have a scrap of happiness or understanding, an opportunity to understand that loving someone doesn’t mean keeping someone.”
Fairy tales are fun cultural construct. On the one hand, they were often blunt-force early childhood education tools. (“Listen to your parents if you don’t want to die.”) On the other hand, so many of literature’s familiar motifs are drawn from them, and their symbols carry power and meaning far beyond childhood.
In The Lettuce Girl, Wiedeman taps into that symbolic resonance to create unusually intimate and psychologically rich versions of a classic tale’s iconic characters. The book has a lilting charm and idiosyncratic visual style which form a work of unexpected warmth and empathy, one far more nuanced and fulfilling than the canonical Grimm version.
And having enjoyed her book the first time through, I found myself going back again and again to discover the symbolic breadcrumb trails that Wiedeman left throughout.