The Steep and Thorny Way: A New YA Hamlet

Fiona Hartley-Kroeger (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

The Steep and Thorny Way (2016) by Cat Winters joins a long list of recent Hamlet re-imaginings published for teens, including John Marsden’s Hamlet (2008), Dot Hutchinson’s A Wounded Name (2013), and of course Lisa Klein’s often-cited Ophelia (2006), to say nothing of Ryan North’s chooseable path adventure To Be or Not To Be (2013). When YA authors seek a female protagonist for a Hamlet appropriation, they usually turn to Ophelia. But Winters gender-swaps the lead, translating Hamlet to a biracial teenaged girl, Claudius to a potential member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Elsinore to a sleepy, poverty-ridden town in Prohibiton-era Oregon.

steep-and-thorny-way-small Hamlet is Hanalee Denney, grieving for her black father’s recent death and unsettled by the hasty marriage of her white mother, Greta, to white family friend and town doctor Clyde Koning. When the alleged killer, Joe Adder, is released from jail and returns to town, Hanalee is desperate for revenge and starts to hear rumors of her father’s unquiet ghost. Despite the concerns of her best friend Fleur and the ominous warnings of Fleur’s brother Laurence, Hanalee seeks the ghost out. His words set Hanalee on a dangerous path of hidden motives and unlikely alliances: joining forces with Joe Adder, who protests his innocence, she is determined to discover the truth and punish the true murderer.

Winters cleverly embodies King Hamlet’s supposed cause of death—a serpent—into the wrongfully accused Joe Adder, whose supposed guilt, Hanalee is led to believe, masks that of the true serpent, Clyde. Winters further remixes her versions of Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, and Laertes. Fleur, Hanalee’s best friend, is a combination of Ophelia and Horatio, confidante and giver of flowers both, trapped in an impoverished household under the domineering thumb of her brother. It is the suicidal Joe Adder, first the target of Hanalee’s revenge and later her closest ally, who is drawn to water and in danger of becoming entangled in the lily-pads. Laurence, Fleur’s brother and Hanalee’s childhood sweetheart, displays all of Laertes’ protectiveness and dominance over his sister. Yet he also carries out some of Hamlet’s actions: Laurence distances himself from biracial Hanalee even while trying to warn her of imminent danger as he embarks on a path of violence partially fueled by self-hatred.

Other, smaller touches, mostly names and chapter titles, remind the reader of the language of the source text. But for the first two thirds of the book, Hamlet appears to remain a loosely applied but stable framework for a story about a girl’s struggle to obtain justice for her father. The reader expects that Clyde is the villain, motivated by desire for Greta and hatred of his longtime friend; and that Hanalee will expose his misdeeds and achieve personal vengeance (though perhaps not her own death).

A major plot twist depends precisely upon the reader’s expectations being guided in this way by familiarity with Hamlet. For contrary to the reader’s (and Hanalee’s) expectation, Clyde is not the killer. Hank Denney, it turns out, is not a revenge tragedy ghost but a protective one. He appears to his daughter, not to beg vengeance, but to warn her of local Klan activity. Joe, framed for manslaughter, is actually guilty of homosexuality (which is made even worse in the eyes of the Klan by his being the son of the straight-laced Protestant preacher). Joe’s persecution mirrors and amplifies Hanalee’s: her skin color and his sexual orientation make them prime targets for the movement fueled by racial hatred, a desire to punish sexual deviance, and a deep-seated belief in the superiority of white racial purity. In Winters’ hands, Hamlet’s anxiety about his lineage (as the son of the perfidious, relentlessly embodied Gertrude) becomes national anxiety about lineage: the racial dimensions of the eugenics movement are starkly, viscerally real. Here, the very personal hereditary element of Hamlet gives way to discourse about family and birth; miscegenation and heritable traits; imprisonment and involuntary sterilization. Whiteness is substituted too for hereditary monarchy: from the Klan’s point of view, it is Hanalee, not Clyde, who threatens the true succession of the crown (the “crown” being racial purity and white superiority). The murder of Hank Denney, then, is not one of biological brother against brother, or even close friend against friend, but the murder done by ordinary people against those whom they ought to consider their brothers; the hate-fueled, self-aggrandizing slaughter of those who, as humankind, ought to be kin.

With the foregrounding of personal and institutional racial hatred comes a re-orientation of the narrative’s endgame. Revenge in kind is deplorable, impossible. Instead, Hanalee takes the view that the best revenge is to survive and thrive: to become better educated, more financially successful, and more personally fulfilled than those who have wronged her. The absolute worst thing she can do to her father’s killers is to live, to speak, to claim full personhood. “For me,” Hanalee says, “the rest was not silence.”

Works Consulted
Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works, 2nd Edition. Edited by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery. Clarendon Press, 2006.
Winters, Cat. The Steep and Thorny Way. Amulet Books, 2016.

More YA appropriation reviews:
“Love well, if not wisely”: Romeo and Juliet… and Benvolio and Rosaline


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