by Edith Pattou
~ seems I can\’t help it, there are some spoilers in this post ~
This was a really good story. It\’s pretty hefty but I was so intent on the reading I hardly noticed the length. It\’s a retelling of the folktale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Some aspects of the story were very reminiscent of Beauty– young woman of her free will goes to live with a wild creature in an enchanted castle, where she must figure out how to break the spell and free the man inside the beast…
Our heroine, Ebba Rose, is born to a mother who strongly believes in superstition. In this case, she\’s fixated on what direction her babe is facing when it enters the world. Rose was born facing north- destined to be a wanderer, no matter how much her mother tried to keep her tame and close to home. Her father loves mapmaking but has been struggling to make ends meet as a farmer. Her family is on really hard times- one of her sisters is seriously ill and the family is near starving- when their door bursts open during a storm and a large polar bear speaks to them. He states that if Rose will accompany him, the sister will recover and the family will prosper. Once they get over their shock at the bear\’s visit, the family falls into denial- it is a crazy idea, it can\’t be true- animals don\’t talk- but Rose herself is intrigued and has always wanted to travel, has often played as a child of having a white bear companion. So she goes, against her father\’s wishes.
On a strange, swift journey with the bear through the forest, under an ocean, across an icy land to a castle inside a mountain. With rooms of comforts, books on shelves, musical instruments, and a beautiful loom. Rose happens to love weaving- it was a really nice touch to have this skill and art as a central thread to the story. She spends her time working at the loom, studying the books, trying to interact with the mysterious servants- who are trolls- and getting used to the fitful company of a nearly-silent polar bear. She doesn\’t figure out the enchantment until it is almost too late- and then has to undo her error in being too hasty with curiosity. This has always been an odd sticking point in the original story- who in their right mind would think it normal to sleep next to a stranger in the dark, night after night. Rose tries to explain it away- her feeling of dread, of breaking some taboo- but it is her mother who finally gives her the means to see the stranger in the dark. And then she has to go on a difficult journey further north, to find the man-who-was-a-bear and bring him safely home (if he wants to come) from the wicked Troll Queen\’s clutches.
I really liked that most of the characters were fairly complex. The mother is superstitious and worries about her children, but is the only one who encourages Rose to go with the bear in the first place. The bear, a man trapped inside a beast, struggles to keep his human nature alive for years and years- and when he is finally released from the spell- he finds himself completely at a loss. The Troll Queen isn\’t simply evil- but consumed by longing, a love for the human boy she once saw which becomes a desire to possess him- resulting in his enchantment inside a bear as punishment. The whole section of the story where Rose is in the Trolls\’ realm was eerily reminiscent in some ways of aspects of the Holocaust- I could not help thinking of it when I read the part that describes how the human slaves were done away with, when their usefulness was over….
Anyway, in spite of a few flaws- I didn\’t understand for one thing, why the bear was suffering punishment when the Troll Queen was the one who had done wrong- I found it a richly enjoyable book, one to get immersed in.
Rating: 4/5 507 pages, 2005