Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy

Despite the title, this story--credited as a retelling of an Iraqi folktale from 1000 CE or so, though I suspect it's not so easily summarized--doesn't spend much time on all those daughters and sons. Instead, it focuses on Buran, one of seven daughters, and the apple of her father's eye. Dad is a kind man, but isn't great at business, and can't scrape together enough money to make any of his seven daughters attractive enough to make his brother amenable to marrying any of those daughters to any of the brother's seven sons. Yes, that is a convoluted sentence. To add insult, Buran's favorite cousin speaks ill of her when he rebuffs the marriage proposal.

As thing spiral downward for her family, Buran gets to spend time with her father, and is introduced to things like chess, a man's game. At last, she must act. She cuts off her hair, dresses in men's clothing, and finds a place in a caravan, determined to make her fortune as a trader. It's a rough beginning to her heroic journey, but she fools people. Mostly.

That would be enough of a story, but there are two more parts. In part II, Buran--now Nasir--befriends a prince, who upon finding that he loves his friend, sets out to prove that Nasir is a woman. This part was a little sketchy for me, but it's likely enough, and I'm giving this 30-years-old retelling a bit of a mulligan, as it's attempting to recreate a time in the past (and certainly, reflective of people's attitudes about gender today). The underlying idea is that the prince is pleased to have found a woman who can be his friend and lover at once, so there's that, at least. Yes, women can be considered human! (It's more complicated than I'm letting on, but modern-day-me had some issues.)

In part III, Buran, now wealthy, knows she's going to be revealed, and returns to her hometown of Baghdad as a woman. She can provide for her family, and while her movement is constrained again, she can still take part in trade by proxy. She even manages a little revenge before the prince catches up with Nasir...

I read this as part of scoping out "tales retold" for Sirens (; it didn't turn out to have a lick of anything resembling fantasy in it. But despite some misgivings--that stilted sort of fairytale retelling style at the beginning, a creepy gender reveal plot in the middle--I ended up being pleased with the story on the whole. I think it was the dad's confidence in Buran and the revenge plot.


  1. I don't think I've of this folktale before or at least it's not ringing any bells for me. I'm interested though and think the book would work well for my Middle Eastern reading challenge. I have a hard time finding satisfying reads for this challenge. I think I might give this one a whirl. Thanks for the review, Hallie!

  2. It didn't ring a bell for me either, so I did a little looking, and I've found some references to variations in places like Italy and Sudan, as well as to an inclusion in a collection (that I have, and am avoiding because I want it to be better sourced). But in a lot of ways, I think that it's the retelling that matters. I have a handful of similar books, so I'll try to remember to post reviews as I get them read!


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