Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga has been well-covered in children’s books. She’s the classic wicked witch, really, lurking in the woods, associating with various animals, dining on children. She is also for some a firm reminder of the old world and, in the 21st Century, is probably not a vibrant presence in the imaginations of Russian-descent kids that she might have been even 50 years ago.
Baba Yaga’s Assistant (Amazon) addresses this distance, searching for the point when the folklore of the elderly, that is presented as almost as a warm and fuzzy, comforting bonding point with grandparents, evolved from the terrifying and cautionary origins.
Masha lives with her dad, a widower, and was close with her grandmother in the absence of her mother. Grandmother, now also deceased, regaled her with plenty of the old tales of Baba Yaga, with the notion that she, once, actually met the old hag. These stories and the memories of listening to them are sweeping vigorously through Masha’s soul again as she faces news that her father has proposed to his girlfriend — a woman Masha has never met, and who has a daughter that turns out to be pretty unpleasant.
Feeling finally alone, without a family and expected to find her own way in life, Masha sees her chance to do something a little different with the stories of Baba Yaga — embrace them. Answering an ad for a magical assistant placed in the newspaper by Baba Yaga herself, Masha wanders into the woods, confronts the old witch, and applies for the job.
Baba Yaga, in typical fairy tale tradition. charges Masha with passing three tests that will prove her worth as an assistant. And with any updated fairy tale worth its salt, you can be sure that the tests are also going to make Masha a better person and help her solve some of her problems.
McCoola manages to walk a happy tightrope with this story, delving into Masha’s adventures, but giving a lot of time to old stories of Baba Yaga. But these interludes aren’t intrusive — they’re directly linked to the action at hand, bringing them to life and keeping the story on an even flow. McCoola is also not afraid to embrace the darkness. Baba Yaga isn’t a monstrous character, even though she has some monstrous intentions, and Masha’s dark side is not presented as repulsive, nor is her interest in Baba Yaga’s world necessarily a bad thing. Masha is in an emotionally dark place, and the legends of the old world are presented as a place not to wipe away those parts of yourself, but to face them, understand them, and work your way through them — and maybe even keep the parts worth having.