Never Afters Story Notes (Part 1): Burnt Sugar

This is the first of six posts concerning my Never Afters novella series, to be published by Brain Jar Press in 2022. Each title re-visions a well-known fairy tale, originally written as the creative component of my PhD thesis. Dark, powerful, and brimming with magic, the Never Afters tales weave a world in which the fairy-tale girls grow up to find both love and heartbreak, family and friendship, loss and forgiveness.

Cover of Burnt Sugar by Kirstyn McDermott

Although it was one of my favourite fairy tales as a young girl, I could never understand why the ending of “Hansel and Gretel” was meant to be a happy one. The children have been terrorised by the witch, with Gretel forced to commit a grisly murder in order to save herself and her brother, then they are both expected to go back and live with the father who abandoned them deep in the forest in the first place. And everyone is happy about this?

In the Little Golden Book I had back then, which remains my most vividly recollected version of the tale, both the anonymous author and the illustrator, Eloise Wilkin, have gone to great pains to lessen the trauma of this ending. the woman in the tale is the children’s stepmother and she alone leavens all cruelty against them. In the original version collected by the Brothers Grimm, the woman was the mother of the children — they themselves revised this in later editions, of course — and the father plays as great a role in the deception and abandonment of the children as she does, going to the extent of constructing a wood-chopping machine to convince them he is still working nearby while the parental getaway is made. In the ending of the Little Golden Book version, the children return to find that their (hen-pecked and now repentant) father has been searching the forest for them during their absence, as the cruel stepmother has simply “gone away forever”. The Grimms, by contrast, tell us she has (mysteriously) died and the father is found at home, with no indications that he has been looking for his children in the meantime.

It’s interesting, the contortions some contemporary retellings will make in order to absolve the father of wrong-doing and thus deliver an upbeat ending to this otherwise horrific tale.

I don’t buy it. Not then, and not now.

In writing “Burnt Sugar”, I wanted to explore the aftermath of these events and imagine how Hansel and Gretel might have lived out the rest of their lives — which, of course, eventually led me right back to my own re-interpretation of the infamous fairy tale. The stories which are told to us in childhood, which we in turn tell to our own children, are the stories that help to shape us, to shape how we see the world and its workings. There is both a comfort and a danger in this well-worn familiarity. Sometimes, you need to take these beloved old things out into the sun and shake them. Sometimes, as Emily Dickinson would no doubt advise, you need to look at them slant.


Decades after the incident in the woods, Gretel has forged a good life in a small village, running a bakery and taking care of her brother and the stray, bedraggled women who find work as her apprentices. Business is good, and when it’s not, Gretel took more from the witch than a knack of making sweet treats and gingerbread, just as her brother returned home forever changed by the torture he experienced.

The book of magic hidden beneath the stairs has kept Gretel and her household comfortable for years, but it also calls to Gretel in the night, demanding she return to the woods and replace the witch they killed. For years, she’s been resisting, determined to keep Hansel and her apprentices safe.

Then Hansel’s drinking goes too far and Gretel realises her brother is dying. Finally, the seductive call of the book’s magic might be too strong to deny …

Burnt Sugar will be released on 15 February 2021 and is available for pre-order now from Brain Jar Press.

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