Horse, Flower, Bird
Coffee House Press
Kate Bernheimer

“Whitework” is from Kate Bernheimer’s collection, HORSE, FLOWER, BIRD (Coffee House Press). Booklist said of the book, “A collection readers won’t soon forget, one that redefines the fairy tale into something wholly original.” Bernheimer is an advocate of the fairy tale: she has edited three fairy-tale anthologies, edits the Fairy Tale Review, and helps preserve this literary tradition through her fiction, essays and advocacy. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Massachusetts Review and other journals.


We asked Bernheimer about “Whitework.” She said: I wrote this story in the public library in a small town in Massachusetts, in summertime. It was fishing season. I was trying to write a children’s fairy tale about a boy who lives in a ship in a bottle. Despite sitting there among dioramas of schooners, and nets filled with starfish on the knotty pine walls, and ships in bottles, I was not getting far. As I sometimes do when I’m at a standstill, I browsed the library shelves. I picked up a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and it opened right to “The Oval Portrait”—it must have been a library patron’s favorite and I imagined him checking the book out again and again to return the story. Across from an old man doing word searches, I wrote the first version of “Whitework” in one sitting that day.


It follows the little path of “The Oval Portrait,” but makes excursions from there into fairy tales. The cottage of the story is the main character’s beautiful prison or home—just like the ship in the bottle of the story I’d been trying to write the very same morning. The story also contains some imagery from a 19th century German fairy-tale novella about a character who wakes up in a bed in a mysterious room, completely bewildered. I’ve never read that novella but I had read about it—we carry vestiges of stories we’ve heard, and somehow retell them to ourselves always, I think. As a child I wanted nothing more than to disappear inside a story—to live in one forever. I suspected that it would be bliss. This story is a fairy tale about the magic of reading.

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