Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
Written by Jessica Day George
Release date: January 8
Reviewed by Melissa
We are all familiar with fairy tales, having heard them -- in some form at least -- since we were young. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Puss 'n Boots... they are bedtime stories, Disney movies, picture books. But they are also fairly one-dimensional. We know nothing about the characters, the motivations, the history. So fairy tales have some of the best possibilities for creating novels. But, I come to believe that writing a novelization of a fairy tale is a fine art. It needs to have all the elements, or at least all the major elements, of the original tale, and yet have some original spin on it. The characters need to have a back-story and motivations and reasons for the magical events surrounding the tale. And, perhaps most importantly, the characters need to be sympathetic and the events if not plausible, then at least believable.
Novelizing fairy tales has become a trend, at least in middle-grade and young adult fiction, as of late. Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine) and Just Ella (Margaret Peterson Haddix) took on the Cinderella story. Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier) and The Goose Girl (Shannon Hale) drew their stories from lesser-known tales. Donna Jo Napoli has written several novelizations of different fairy tales, including Rapunzel (Zel) and Beauty and the Beast (Beast). As has Robin McKinley. As with all stories, some are better than others.
And then there's the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
The story is a simple one: A white bear offers to take a girl -- in this case, nameless pika (or Lass), for her mother was too disappointed in having a fifth girl to name her -- from a poor family to live in his enchanted castle for one year and one day, in exchange for wealth for her family. Living in the castle is fairly uneventful for the girl, except that every night, someone comes to sleep with her in the bed. After a while, she aches to go home, and the white bear relents, with one condition: she must not tell anyone what happens in the castle. She breaks this condition, tells, in George's story, her sister about the stranger in the bed, and her sister gives her a candle. Back at the castle, she lights the candle and sees that it's a man in the bed with her. Unfortunately, with this act, she seals his fate: he's been enchanted by the troll princess and he is taken away to marry her in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon. The girl then sets out to search for the man (whom she realized, too late, was the white bear). She walks for ages, and stopping at the house of three aged monsters (aunties) where she picks up some everyday items -- a jar of apple jam, a spindle, and a comb. Eventually, the north wind agrees takes her to the castle. Once there, she trades the gifts to the troll princess for visits to the prince, and finally succeeds in breaking the troll princess's curse.
It's a story ripe with material to work with. And George does an excellent job with some of it. The world she creates is rich in Norse myth, culture, and language (there's even a glossary). Which adds to the authentic feel the book has: magical -- animals talk, yet only to the lass -- yet it's an organic magic. No fancy spells, no magical props (save for a journal that helps the lass communicate with her family): the magic originates from a deeper source. The lass is a curious character: determined to figure out every last secret in the castle, she persists in asking questions, some of which get others into trouble. Her persistence becomes an asset later, though, and perhaps she redeems herself through this. George also succeeded in making her sympathetic, even though I've found it difficult to be sympathetic to nameless characters in the past. The lass's family was also well done; while I couldn't keep every person straight in my mind, the important ones -- her mother, her brothers Hans Peter and Askeladden, and her sister Tordis -- were quite compelling. Her mother and Askeladden were sufficiently arrogant and disdainful; and Tordis was only concerned for the lass's welfare. I especially liked Hans Peter. Out of all the characters in the book, his was the most interesting; sullen and sad, yet the only one who really showed the lass any affection. His stories from his seafaring time that he tells the lass, his wood carving, and even his parka all play a major role in the lass's adventure.
But George's retelling, while good, lacked the necessary elements needed for it to be great. Because she kept so closely to the original story, I was able to predict pretty much what would happen and when. I didn't feel that there was much of a connection between the bear and the lass; while I could understand her desire to go after him, I didn't feel that their profession of love was at all believable. And in the end, I was left feeling that while there were real possibilities in the book, George didn't fully develop them, or put enough of her own stamp on the original fairy tale. I felt that something essential was missing: I wanted depth and conflict and connection, and I got Norse words and Hans Peter.
But, that's part of the risk of retelling fairy tales. It's an opportunity to tell and retell the same story in a myriad of different ways. Sometimes they work really well; other times not so much. Either way, it's an interesting adventure.