Hap­pi­ly: A Per­son­al His­to­ry-with Fairy Tales

By – March 27, 2023

Through twen­ty-six essays, Sab­ri­na Orah Mark breath­less­ly leaps between her fam­i­ly his­to­ry and the metaphors hid­den in fairy tales. Her life’s jour­ney has moved her from a Brook­lyn yeshi­va upbring­ing in a divorced home in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies to a more rur­al Geor­gia, where she is a writer and the moth­er of two Black Jew­ish sons. If you stay home,” Mark writes, there is no story.”

The fairy tales offer her a way to probe her own appre­hen­sions about being a moth­er, a step­moth­er, a third wife, and the daugh­ter of an unsen­ti­men­tal moth­er. It’s not easy to keep your fam­i­ly safe, Mark seems to say, when the out­side world is writ­ing its own nar­ra­tives of racism, dying migrant chil­dren, and Covid. She would like to bring in her beak-nosed plague doc­tor doll and the Jew­ish clay golem of lore to draw a mag­ic cir­cle around those she loves. 

These lit­er­ary and wry­ly humor­ous pieces, most of which appeared as columns in The Paris Review, inter­weave frank episodes from Mark’s life with tra­di­tion­al folk­lore, bib­li­cal tales, and wide­ly known sto­ries like Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s The Lit­tle Mer­maid. She eschews Dis­ney escapism, pre­fer­ring to wring mean­ing from the orig­i­nal tales — and she does not shy away from shar­ing her feel­ings about her own sto­ries. She admits that she often wor­ries about hurt­ing peo­ple with what she writes. She believes heal­ing is pos­si­ble through an hon­est explo­ration of witch­es and cru­el step­moth­ers, who let us see the mon­sters in our­selves. She won­ders about whether she should have been teach­ing her chil­dren about the hypotenuse of a tri­an­gle when home­school­ing this year; how to han­dle her lost teenage step­daugh­ter, who moves in with a taran­tu­la; and what to tell her sons, who have climbed to the top of a pre­car­i­ous heap of bricks.

In Chil­dren with Moth­ers Don’t Eat Hous­es,” Mark nim­bly moves from describ­ing the peb­ble found in her elder son’s ear to recall­ing those dropped by Hansel and Gre­tel to find their way home. Real­ly, she asserts, they were hun­gry for a moth­er when they ate the gin­ger­bread house. She tells how her own moth­er would stop speak­ing to her when she dis­agreed, and how, at age twelve, she and her nine-year-old twin broth­ers occu­pied an apart­ment eight floors below their moth­er, where they lived alone for years. Home in the fairy­tale is a cracked shell,” Mark says. But the chap­ter doesn’t end there. Mark pro­vides lyrics for the song her Amer­i­can yeshi­va class rou­tine­ly sang, about leav­ing Rus­sia and its pris­ons to be free. Peb­bles lead her to thoughts of death and stones placed on the top of Jew­ish tomb­stones to keep the soul from being lost, and then to the sto­ry of her sons fill­ing their pock­ets with peb­bles. She then dis­cuss­es Samuel Beckett’s Mol­loy, whose tit­u­lar char­ac­ter sucks stones and can­not remem­ber if his moth­er is dead — at which point Mark recounts being a first-time mom, strug­gling to breast­feed, her own moth­er telling her that her milk must be sour.

Lit­er­ary and plain-spo­ken, seri­ous and wry, this short book leaves the read­er with many quotable pas­sages, mem­o­rable images of moth­er­hood, and a new way to con­sid­er their own lives.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions

A mem­oir-in-essays that weaves fairy tales into deeply per­son­al sto­ries about fam­i­ly and social issues, Hap­pi­ly by Sab­ri­na Orah Mark is full of mes­mer­iz­ing prose and deep insights. Mark explores how fairy tales reflect life long after child­hood ends.

Hav­ing grown up Ortho­dox Jew­ish in Brook­lyn, the author describes her life as a moth­er and step­moth­er in Athens, Geor­gia, where she rais­es two Black Jew­ish sons at a time of ris­ing anti­semitism, Covid, and the mur­der of George Floyd. Mark’s abil­i­ty to con­nect fairy tales to dif­fi­cult con­tem­po­rary issues is cathar­tic — she plants the idea that many prob­lems could be solved if only adults immersed their minds in the fan­tas­ti­cal: The rea­son fairy tales last is that they allow us to gaze at our­selves through a glass that is at once trans­par­ent and reflective.”

Jew­ish themes play a role through­out the book. Mark con­nects fairy tales to the Passover plagues, the golem, the Holo­caust Muse­um, and her own reli­gious expe­ri­ences grow­ing up. But many oth­er real-life chal­lenges are explored. These include a loved one’s can­cer diag­no­sis, the pur­suit of an unat­tain­able job, and the chal­lenges of being her husband’s third spouse — all of which are accom­pa­nied by a fairy tale that serves as a mirror.

New life is breathed into Hansel and Gre­tel, Peter Pan, Rapun­zel, and Pinoc­chio, among oth­ers, in this emo­tion­al­ly vis­cer­al and wild­ly imag­i­na­tive gem of a book. Hap­pi­ly is a tes­ta­ment to Sab­ri­na Orah Mark’s gift not only as a writer, but also as a truth-teller in an age in which sur­re­al­i­ty just might help us see the world more clearly.