This novelization of the old folk tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is riveting, exciting, and broadly heroic. I’ve been reading Ms. Durst’s blog for a while, and I’ve enjoyed her comedic fractured fairy tales (see here and here, for example). But Ice is not a comedy, even though Cassie, the heroine, and her Bear husband do share some lighthearted banter in between harrowing and tragic scenes of suffering and devastation.
The story is similar to the more familiar “Beauty and the Beast” or the even older “Cupid and Psyche”,” but it takes place in the far north and involves a Polar Bear King rather than a transmogrified beast or a Greek god. Ms. Durst has transplanted the story from Scandinavia to Alaska, but when you get close enough to the North Pole, it’s all North anyway. And very cold and icy. Cassie’s father is an Arctic researcher and scientist, and her mother is dead. Or perhaps, as Cassie’s Gram tells the story, Cassie’s mother is the daughter of the North Wind and a prisoner in the troll’s castle, east of the sun and west of the moon.
The style and substance remind me of the books of Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time and Troubling the Sea. There’s the same mingling of science and scientific research with story and fantasy and magic and also same sense of “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.” The religious underpinnings lean a bit toward reincarnation; the Polar Bear King is actually a munaqsri, a sort of Death Angel who claims the souls of dying polar bears and gives the souls to newborn polar bears, thus ensuring the continuation of the species. However, there’s a bit of Christian-ish imagery, too, in the ending (an ending I won’t spoil for you, but I thought it was wonderful).
Also echoing L’Engle in the Great Conversation, Durst has created a heroine in Cassie who is strong and determined, if sometimes impetuous. Cassie has a lot to overcome, a journey to an impossible destination, friends who want to stop her for her own good and for that of the child she is carrying, and her own ambivalence about the pregnancy and her relationship to Bear, who is her husband and her mother’s rescuer and father to her child. The story as Ms. Durst tells it is about trust and about persistence in the face of insurmountable odds and about self-sacrifice and what that means when the choices are all painful and imperfect.
At any rate, when I compare this book to L’Engle, I’m giving it high praise indeed because Madeleine L’Engle is on my list of top ten or twelve favorite authors. Sarah Beth Durst has written a book that I enjoyed and thought about after I finished. I wondered whether I would make the choices that Cassie made. I wondered what I would do to stop my daughter from making the choices Cassie made. I wondered how in the world authors make such wonderful storybook worlds for us to inhabit for a day or an afternoon.
Thanks to Sarah Beth Durst and to the authors of many other books that have brightened and enriched my world.
Here’s a list of a few other fairy tale adaptations that we have enjoyed here at Semicolon house or that we hope to enjoy:
Other retellings of East of the Sun, West of the Moon
East by Edith Pattou. I read this one a couple of years ago, but didn’t review it. I like Ice better.
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
From Beauty and the Beast:
The afore-mentioned Beauty by Robin McKinley.
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. A different version of Beauty and the Beast.
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli.
The Sleeping Beauty
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley.
Enchantment by Orson Scott Card. Semicolon review here.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley. Brown Bear Daughter’s review.
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry.
Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George.
Other Folk Tales Ride Again
A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth Bunce. (Rumpelstiltskin) Semicolon review here.
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Semicolon review here.
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli. (Rapunzel)
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George. (The Twelve Dancing Princesses)Semicolon review here.