A Critical Look of “In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale”

The story of an evil stepmother is heard time and time again throughout various points in our childhood, and that is precisely what Leslie Jamison wants to remind us of when she begins to recount her tale of being a stepmother in the Times Magazine. “In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale” recounts Jamison’s struggles and successes of being a stepmother to a young girl whose mother succumbed to cancer before she turned three.

Jamison begins her story with quite the odd tales of her stepdaughter’s play habits. Lily, Jamison’s stepdaughter, likes to play orphan even though she has a father and a stepmother if she were an orphan she wouldn’t have any parents. Jamison then tells readers about Lily’s other odd behaviors such as adoring Cinderella’s evil stepmother for her looks but follows it up with how pretty she thinks Jamison is. These tales lead us to the premature conclusion that Lily hates Jamison as a stepmother and find her to be a nasty old lady who has been thrust upon her. Just by reading about Lily’s make-believe play habits we have to assume that there is a vicious tension between stepmother and stepdaughter that would typically be seen in a Disney story hence the title of the article. Instead, we come to learn about the struggles that Jamison faced when becoming a stepmother and just how genuinely she wanted Lily to love her as if Jamison was her birth mother. If Jamison were indeed an even stepmother she never would have hunted for Frozen themed gifts, especially not from the Times Square Disney store which is a place no New Yorker would want to be caught dead at even on the best of days.


Throughout her piece, Jamison hits many of the small moments in the mother-daughter relationship between her and Lily and brings readers into a personal space that they might not have expected to find in the Times Magazine on a Sunday morning. Jamison also recounts how the notion of a stepmother has changed over time by analyzing and interviewing Leslie Lindenauer a historian who wrote: “I Could Not Call Her Mother: The Stepmother in American Popular Culture, 1750-1960.” In Lindenauer’s book, the stepmother started out as evil as the witches that were hung and drowned during the time of the Salem witch trials. As time went on in American history, Lindenauer explains how having a stepmother was better than having no mother at all and that a stepmother could bring some sort of peace and sense of normalcy into a home that might have been previously broken. Although some stepmothers may come into the picture and try to “fix” whatever may have been broken not once does Jamison see herself as doing that. Instead throughout the entirety of her article Jamison is merely trying to win the love and affection of a child who would have given it to her with much less thought and struggle on the part of Jamison.


The entire piece comes full circle when Jamison examines the only good stepmothers she had ever encountered in her quest to learn more about fairy tale stepmothers. These two stepmothers hailed from Iceland and had both put their stepchildren ahead of themselves. The fact that the fairytale stepmothers, even if it is fairy tale put their non-biological children ahead of themselves and went through the thick of it with children who weren’t theirs. This lesson is something Jamison aspires to and is something that she hopes readers can learn from and will bring her and Lily as close together as a mother and daughter could be.

Take a look at Jamison’s piece here, it’s a great read for a Sunday Morning!