on Happily: A Personal History—with Fairy Tales by Sabrina Orah Mark

Early in the pandemic, those of us raising school-aged children found them suddenly everywhere, all the time, closer than they’d been since infancy. It was as if my oldest child’s dark prophecy had come true: at five, after learning she’d one day grow up and move out, she had stared me down: “In fact, I’m never leaving.”

Sabrina Orah Mark’s children weave through her pandemic-era memoir, Happily: A Personal History—with Fairy Tales. In the spring of 2020, none of us were leaving, except those who were leaving in the most terrifying way possible, dying in hospital rooms made strange by brave attendants in full PPE. The pandemic made the whole world strange—or no, the world has always been strange. The pandemic merely blew back the curtain.

This ancient strangeness—the otherworldliness of the world—is at the heart of Happily. Fairy tales are both Mark’s subject and form. In essays with titles like “Sorry Peter Pan, We’re Over You” and “Rapunzel, Draft One Thousand,” Mark examines how fairy tales illuminate our modern lives. The plots, even the language, are familiar, wafting back to us from childhood. Rumpelstiltskin cackles, “Tomorrow I brew, today I bake / Soon the child is mine to take.” Sometimes Mark infuses these old tales with new insights: “Then Gretel knocks out an entire sugar windowpane. The children are insatiable because what they are really hungry for is a mother and their mother is gone. Children with mothers don’t eat houses.” This incantatory book mystifies as much as it clarifies.

At the same time, Mark claims the mundanity of her life, going to Target and ordering Halloween costumes and feeding her stepdaughter’s tarantula, Mavis. The lines between ordinary trials and fairy tale trials blur. When another mother asks, “What’s your plan for middle school?” Mark writes, “We are looking into, I want to say, other dimensions.” Both the analysis of fairy tales and the excavation of her days get mixed up in her hypnotic prose, reminding us the world both is and is not what it seems. 

There are tears. There are pebbles. There are tears that become pebbles. Everything transmogrifies. Mark writes, “This morning I reached into my pocket for my house key and found a small blue plastic leg instead. Every day I am reminded that ending up where you actually belong might be the biggest miracle of all.” 

Neither the question of belonging nor the dangers in these essays are mythical. Mark, a Jewish woman raising Black Jewish sons in Georgia, knows the poison apples are synagogue shootings, planetary destruction, police brutality. In “Fairy Tales and the Bodies of Black Boys,” she tells her son he can’t walk through Target with his stuffed animal under his shirt. “Bondo is shy,” her son replies. “I told him I’d keep him safe.” The excursion makes her “remember Tom Thumb who, like the body of a Black boy, is caught inside a swallow cycle.” Her writing wells up from the sense, heightened for so many parents during the pandemic, that it is her duty to protect her children from harm, a task that may prove as impossible as spinning straw into gold. 

I suspect motherhood may be one reason Mark chose fairy tales as a lens to make sense of our modern world. Parents witness their children’s childhoods superimposed atop their own. Mark claims, “The reason fairy tales last is that they allow us to gaze at ourselves through a glass that is at once transparent and reflective. They give us a double gaze to see ourselves from the inside out and the outside in.” The same, of course, is true of parenthood.

But if this book was born of parenting, it grows of language. Mark is a poet (The Babies, Tsim Tsum) and fiction writer (Wild Milk), and in Happily the language shapeshifts. As with fairy tales, Mark’s language is both vessel and contents. In noting the unfairness of fairy tales (and the world), Mark writes that such stories have “stitched a y to the end of fair—it’s a weirdly shaped wing that carries fairness away.” 

In the essay titled “~Hope.docx,” Mark is trying to recover a document she’s lost (who cannot relate?), searching for ~Hope instead of just Hope. She muses that the tilde “could be mistaken for a cutting from a tikvah,” which is the Hebrew word for hope, before concluding, “Had I turned on Time Machine, I could have recovered my unsaved document, but I didn’t even know there was a Time Machine, and so I never turned it on.” What’s real blurs with what’s surreal or even unreal until I feel in me the urge—which I fight—to Google whether Time Machine is a real feature of document recovery. It sounds too fantastical to be true, which means it must be true—a feature of Mark’s prose, and this era. Nothing is believable. Everything is true.

Mark’s inventive ways of making sense of the absurdity are what make this collection so compelling. In “U Break It We Fix It,” she takes her son’s splintered iPad to be repaired and takes all of us into a fairy tale of brokenness: “The next week I return to U Break It We Fix It with a whole entire country. It’s heavy, but I manage to carry it through the parking lot, leaving behind a trail of seeds and the crisp scent of democracy and something that smells like blood or dirt. Across it is a growing crack.” 

Mark—who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community—pulls from Jewish mysticism in several essays, and here she tells us, “According to the cabalists, in order to give the world life . . . God must depart from the world God created.” Yet God leaves containers of divine light. When the containers burst, the light scatters, and “we spend our lives collecting the offspring of this light. We spend our lives trying to make what once was broken whole again.” Fairy tales, too, are about trying to heal what is broken.

As the essays build, Mark delivers just enough narrative tension to keep us surprised—conflict with a stepdaughter, a sister’s illness, the haunting of a cruel past lover. The adult characters, though, are mostly nameless, almost archetypal: the husband, the mother, the father. (Though no less real—her husband, with two ex-wives, when he hears she is writing about Bluebeard: “Oh fuck.”) Except for one friend, no one over twenty gets a name—only her much younger sister, her stepdaughter, her sons. 

In fairy tales, too, only children—and villains—are seen up close. Almost no one gets saved by an adult—the benign father is off chopping wood, the loving mother dead. A sense of unchecked calamity feels right for a pandemic book. The adults won’t save us, so we’ll have to save ourselves, by killing the wolf or pushing the witch into the oven. This terrible epiphany—no one has a plan or knows how to fix this—occurred as we watched the same disasters that give Mark’s book, and Mark herself, such feelings of doom: unused doses of a vaccine, Viking horns on lunatics storming the Capitol, a policeman’s knee on a Black man’s neck, the seas that rise and the fires that burn.

The magic trick of these essays is how they form a prism to refract the big and little problems, reminding us that we live among the objects of this world as much as among its stories. There is no story without the thimble, the beanstalk, the spider.

The stepdaughter’s tarantula also gets a name. Mavis is both a real spider for which Mark must buy a bag of live crickets (“seventeen cents apiece”), and also the spider in the fairy tale “who scalds herself while she and a flea brew beer in an eggshell.” But out of the real and the mythical spiders, Mark conjures a third: the real one made mythical by its own glorious molting and Mark’s transformative prose. “I check on Mavis. Her new skin now has the slightest tint of midnight blue. It must be the same blue that’s inside the angel’s flame.” 

Like many, I first read Mark in 2020, when a friend texted, “Have you read Fuck the Bread? You have to read it.” This essay, which comes late in the book, originally appeared in Mark’s column “Happily” in The Paris Review, the birthplace of this collection. It went viral. It captures the vulnerability and disappointment she felt upon being rejected for (yet another) professorship, but also her recognition that her sadness and shame and envy over this rejection in February 2020 had entirely metamorphosed by May, a time by which “thirty million Americans [had] lost their jobs.” 

In the new pandemic light, Mark sees the absurdity of proving her worth as a potential professor, a task as absurd as finding “a dog small enough to fit inside a walnut shell.” It’s not she who is ridiculous but “the sixteenth or seventeenth dean” who says, “You write a lot about motherhood.” What a relief, when her mother listens to her worries about not having “a real job,” about not getting flour, and announces, “Fuck the bread. The bread is over.” 

Mark mused, “And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in.” I too texted her essay to friends, relatives, former students: “You have to read this.” I carried her words of affirmation like pebbles in my pocket, touching them throughout the day. Or were they keys? 

Just as “Fuck the Bread” named the feelings of disappointment and want that allowed us to acknowledge our own, in the dark seams of this book, Mark doesn’t shy away from her complicated feelings about being a third wife, her tension with her stepdaughter (who asks, “Why did you write about me?”), or her adamant claim to feel what she feels (“It’s my life too,” she answers, even though she wanted “to say something about repair”). This collection speaks to us precisely because of her willingness to show “the little pieces of monster that grow on our hearts.” 

As it turns out, that feeling so many of us had about “the new world order” did not last. Four years later, those early days of the pandemic feel far off. The light has shifted. We’re in a different story now. But also: look around. The thimble, the beanstalk, the spider. The police brutality, the shootings, the wildfires. It’s also the same story, the way every fairy tale is about good and evil. 

Fairy tales get retold and translated across borders until the names and objects change—the blood and violence taken out and animated, the blood and violence put back in, the Disney version turned into feminist manifestos—and so too with our lives, each life a version of the same story of leaving and finding and losing. Mark: “What I don’t tell my mother is that we have already gone somewhere. We are already in this place where the world we once knew is rushing out of us. We are standing in its unbearable greenness.” Fairy tales, and Happily, remind us we’re all here, in the brokenness and the healing. In fact, we’re never leaving.


Happily: A Personal History—with Fairy Tales. By Sabrina Orah Mark. New York: Random House, 2023. 198 pp. $27.00.


Anne P. Beatty’s essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The Common, Copper Nickel, Longreads, New England Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.