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Spotlight on: Bound by Donna Jo Napoli

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Bound by Donna Jo Napoli Donna Jo Napoli, Bound

Foot binding was an ancient Chinese practice of wrapping women's feet from infancy to restrict their growth. Very small feet were considered the height of attractiveness, often deeming young women with unbound feet to be unmarriageable. In exchange, however, the binding of the feet caused such debilitating injury that the women were almost completely dependent on their families.

Set in ancient China, Bound, the latest novel from author Donna Jo Napoli, cleverly uses this practice in her story of a young girl who discovers her destiny in the face of cultural and familial oppression. Xing Xing (pronounced Shing Shing) lives with her late father's second wife (simply called Stepmother) and their daughter, Wei Ping, Xing Xing's half-sister. Since Stepmother favors her own daughter over Xing Xing, she has Wei Ping's feet bound -- even though she is far too old for the procedure -- in an attempt to make the girl's large feet smaller and get her married.

The binding, of course, causes Wei Ping great pain and makes her unable to walk, leaving Xing Xing to do all of the household chores and errands. (Xing Xing's father did not believe in foot binding, preferring to keep his children able to help him with his pottery. This is where Xing Xing developed her talents for poetry and calligraphy.) Despite making her do all this work, Stepmother nearly always refers to Xing Xing as "lazy one."

Bound takes the familiar Cinderella legend back to its Chinese roots. Set during the Ming dynasty, the book offers a look at an unfamiliar place and time through the guise of a familiar story. Napoli's use of detail adds to the experience, like Xing Xing's belief that her mother has been reincarnated as a carp that is swimming in the family's pond.

In fact, Bound is so full of potential, it feels somewhat restricted by the Cinderella framework, which does not allow much leeway in the storyline. This attempt at remaining faithful to the source also throws off the pacing. The leisurely writing of the majority of the first two-thirds is in sharp contrast to the end: only 15 pages separate the fancy dress ball from "...happily ever after."

Despite this, however, Bound is a pleasure to read that is enjoyable for boys as well as girls. Napoli has shown great skill at adapting fairy tales in the past (Beast was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, while the Golden Kite Award–winning Breath used the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin) and here she continues down that admirable path. Its characters will stay in the mind long after the final page is turned.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2005.

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