Best known (in the UK at least) as the creator of Shrek, William Steig had a long career as a successful cartoonist before turning his hand to children’s books later in life. Brave Irene (1986) was published when he was 79 but reads like the work of a picture book creator at the height of their powers.
Like many of his stories it is rooted in the fairy tale imagination, with shades of the Little Match Girl, and countless other suffering Victorian heroines. Irene is the daughter of a dressmaker who has fallen sick and is unable to deliver a ballgown to the duchess on the other side mountain.
Irene offers to help and sets off with the precious dress full of excitement. She loves the snow, loves her mother and is desperate that her work gets to the ball on time. But it immediately becomes clear that she isn’t equipped for such an arduous journey.
‘The snow was up to her ankles and the wind was worse. It hurried her along and made her stumble. Irene resented this; the box was problem enough. “Easy does it!” she cautioned the wind, leaning back hard against it.’
What starts as a light-hearted adventure soon turns into something more threatening. Irene is overcome by the winter storm; she twists her ankle and eventually loses the dress. The writing is visceral and Irene’s anger at her situation become palpable.
‘Even if she could call for help, no one would hear her. Her body shook. Her teeth chattered. Why not freeze to death, she thought, and let all these troubles end. Why not? She was already buried.’
The son of working class Polish immigrants, William Steig was a lifelong socialist. His father believed ‘that you were being exploited if you worked a regular or ordinary kind of job,’ and while Irene’s anger is directed toward the dreadful weather there’s also an unspoken fury towards the rich people who would allow a child to put her life in danger for some seasonal fripperies.
‘How could anything so terribly wrong be allowed to happen? Tears froze on her lashes. Her dear mother’s hard work, all those days of measuring, cutting, pinning, stitching…. for this?’
And yet… everything works out happily ever after. Irene recovers the dress and is welcomed inside the grand house like a hero. She is fed and changed, the moisture steaming off her frozen clothes by the fire, before being literally swept off her damaged feet at the ball by a succession of handsome aristocrats. It’s an uplifting moment that both Irene and the reader will feel they have earned.
Irene is returned home in style as her mother emerges, panic stricken from her fever. Her daughter brings with her free health care and some marvellous Christmassy treats. Enjoy the gifts but stick around for the killer final line.
‘The duchess had sent Irene’s mother a ginger cake with white icing, some oranges and a pineapple, and spice candy of many flavours, along with a note saying how much she cherished her gown, and what a brave and loving person Irene was. Which, of course Mrs Bobbin knew, better than the duchess.’