Friday, May 4, 2012

East by Edith Pattou

East by Edith Pattou

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Rose, the youngest in her family, has always been adventurous and curious, loving to wander and explore, all qualities of a true north-born child, according to her mother’s superstitions. And yet, Rose’s mother swears that she is an east-born child, and not until she is well past childhood does Rose learn the truth of her birth and the lie she has grown up believing. Angry at her parents and determined to claim her own destiny, when a talking white bear comes to her family and asks Rose to accompany him to his home, she readily agrees. In his home, she wants for nothing except the answers to her questions – why she has been brought there, who the mysterious white servants are, whether or not she will see her family again, who it is that sleeps beside her every night.

Her curiosity is her undoing in the end, and when it hurts a dear friend in the worst possible way, Rose must travel to the corners of the globe and the ends of the earth to set things to rights. But she is up against a terrible foe, one who will do anything and everything in her power to keep Rose from reclaiming her white bear.

Type of adaptation: Retelling

Warning: This will not be a spoiler-free review. I will do my best not to give away any major plot twists, but in order to be an in-depth review, I need to be free to talk about all aspects of the story.

So, this is the book that introduced me to “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” in the first place, and it’s been near the top of my all time favorite books list ever since.
For the most part, the first half of the book is just a straight-up retelling of the story. It fleshes it out and it tightens it up, but it isn’t until Rose sets out to follow the white bear that we start getting real changes to the story.

Rose is the youngest daughter of a large family whose farm is failing because a) there are so many children (7), and b) her father never set out to be a farmer. He was a mapmaker, but a sickness devastated his business, and he had to turn to something else.

Rose’s mother is a very superstitious woman, and one of the superstitions she believes in most strongly is that the direction the mother is facing when a child is born corresponds directly to the child’s personality. So an east-born baby has markedly different characteristics than a northwest-born baby, for instance (also, the children get named for their direction. So her west-born is Willem while her northeast is Nils Erland). Soon after being married, she decides that she wants to have one child for every point on the compass, except North. North-born children, she says, are far too difficult to keep one’s eye on, as they are natural explorers and wanderers, and she has dozens of stories of north-born children dying in horrible ways. So, she has seven children in seven years, working her way around the compass from northeast to northwest. But then her east-born daughter dies, and the empty point haunts her.

Enter Rose. She was originally born to fill that empty space, planned to be an east-born child, but she came a month too early when her parents were out in the forest and a storm was coming. It wasn’t until after she’d been born that the sun reappeared and her parents could see that Rose was born for the North.

Her mother refuses to accept it, and names her daughter Ebba for east and Rose for the wind rose drawn on maps. She makes her husband swear to never tell any differently, and he does because she’s hysterical. But he is uneasy with the lie, and in his heart, calls his daughter Nyamh Rose, for north. Remember this lie. It will become important later on.

One of the things I love is how the story is set both in and not in the real world. Pattou sets the story in our world, specifically Norway and France, with the land of the trolls being across the Arctic wasteland known to really everyone who lives in those freezing northern countries as Lapland. And yet, she doesn’t lose the fairy-tale feel, in part because she sets the story in an ambiguous time in the distant past and in part because she names all those countries in Anglicized versions of the Norwegian names. So France becomes Fransk, and Norway becomes Njord, and so on. The device serves to suspend the story in time in a way that gives it a fairy-tale-esque feel.

Pattou tells the story through five different narrators, and she does it very well. Multiple viewpoints in a novel is a double-edged sword: yes, it allows one to show all sides of the story and help the reader understand many different characters, but it’s also incredibly easy to do badly and it can turn into sloppy storytelling very quickly. Pattou doesn’t let that happen.

It’s a mark of her talent as an author that all her narrators (Rose, the White Bear, Rose’s brother Neddy, Rose’s Father, and the Troll Queen) have five very distinct narrative voices (actually, technically, six, as the White Bear has a different voice when he’s a bear and when he’s human). Pattou uses the technique truly to show all sides of the story. We get into Rose’s head, but it’s from Rose’s Father that we learn the true story of Rose’s birth and the lie she’s spent her life being told. From the White Bear, in halting verse, we hear how he’s watched Rose since she was little, once saving her life when she fell into an icy river. From Neddy, we learn of Rose’s personality and wandering ways, and from the Troll Queen, we get an ominous omnipresence, showing that never is anyone in this story truly unobserved. All these voices combine to tell the story, without being redundant, without overlapping, and without getting confused with one another, which is a tremendous accomplishment.

So the story goes on and we see the struggle of this family and get to know the characters, and then, predictably, Rose discovers the lie of her birth. Rose is infuriated, as one might expect, and it’s right in the middle of this that the White Bear shows up and makes his request. And Rose, angry at her parents and wanting an adventure of her own, says yes before anyone can stop her, climbs on the bear’s back, and rides off with him.

I love the importance that names play in this retelling, especially given that in the original, they are so insignificant as to be non-existent. But here, the names mean something. Rose has her false name, Ebba, her “true” name, Nyamh, and then the name that everyone calls her that is a merging of the false and the true, Rose. Similarly, we have the White Bear, who has been a bear for so long that he no longer remembers his human name, and at the end of the story, he isn’t willing to start a future with Rose until he has a name, and therefore a history, to offer her.

Perhaps the biggest deviation that the first half of the story offers is the combination of the Troll Queen and Troll Princess into one character. A century and a half before, when she was just a princess, she saw and lusted after a human child. Her father refused to obtain the boy for her, as he was a prince and so would be missed. Wanting the boy even more once she’d been told she couldn’t have him, she stole the prince away. Her father, enraged, put the spell on the boy to turn him into a white bear, and set conditions for his daughter’s punishment, as well as the conditions for how the spell could be broken. In the present day, then, her father has died and she is Queen, and the terms of the enchantment are almost up. And she is watching with desire and amusement as events with the white bear and Rose unfold, and it really serves to add that sense of futility to Rose’s time at the castle – as a reader you want her to succeed, and as a reader, you see her strengths and know that she is capable of succeeding. But through the Troll Queen’s eyes, you see her weaknesses, and you know how the Queen is going manipulate things to her advantage. You can see it coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Knowing that Rose will eventually want to return home, the Queen works her arts to play on Rose’s mother’s superstitions and plant the idea that something is wrong that Rose isn’t telling her. I like that this adds a reason to the bear’s warning not to talk with her mother alone. It isn’t that the mother is a bad person, she’s just easily worried and concerned about her daughter’s safety. And the Queen takes advantage of it, planting the magic candle in the marketplace for the mother to discover, knowing that she will give it to Rose and that Rose, too curious for her own good, will use it.

Which is exactly what happens. Before the month she spent at home, Rose never worried about who slept beside her. She noticed that whoever it was shivered in the night, which led her to guess that it was somehow the white bear who has shed his fur, and she even wove him a nightshirt of the loose bear fur she found around the castle. But then, her mother plants this idea, and Rose begins having horrifying nightmares. Eventually, she can’t take it any more, so she lights the candle. The wax falls, the man awakens, the Troll Queen appears to take him away.

Why I love this moment in Pattou’s hands: Rose finds herself outside the magic castle after the Queen has driven away with the man who was a white bear. And for one shining moment, she thinks, “I’m free. I can go home now.” Then she remembers the look on his face. And she knows she can’t go home. She writes a letter to Neddy, and another reason I love this character: in the letter, she tells her mother (who has been wracked with guilt over her actions) that she doesn’t blame her: “You gave me the candle,” she says, “but the choice to use it was mine.” LOVE.

There are no old women with golden apples in this book, and there are no personified winds. Instead, the two sets of characters are combined and made into real people: the east and south winds a mother and daughter in France who start Rose on her journey. The west wind, an old, drunk Viking who sails Rose as far as Greenland/Gronland*, and Malmo, an Inuit shaman who takes Rose north, across the Arctic tundra, teaching her to survive the harsh and frozen land. With Malmo, she goes as far as the bridge that will take her to the land of the trolls.

So, here’s something that always bothered me about the original: a human girl shows up in the land of the trolls, bargaining with the troll princess and making demands to see the human prince, and nobody stops her. Nobody questions this at all. What, do random humans just show up there every day? For Rose, it’s not that easy. For Rose, she has to figure out how to blend in, how to work her way into a position where she can just be in the same room with the prince, let alone get a chance to talk to him. In the original story, she’s there for three days. In East, she’s there for weeks.

And part of the struggle is in what the Troll Queen has done to the prince as well. You have to ask yourself why the prince never tried to get away on his own, why he never tried to leave. We know he’s given a sleeping potion at night, but Pattou fills in the rest of it, too. He’s not just being given a good night’s sleep he’s being drugged to the point where he doesn’t remember that he was once a white bear, who Rose is, or that all this is the Queen’s doing. He thinks she rescued him from an evil sorcerer, so Rose doesn’t just have to find a way to wake him up, she has to find a way to make him remember who he is.

I appreciate that extra struggle because it shows us Rose’s resourcefulness. We see what she is willing to do and what she is able to do in pursuit both of righting a wrong. Oh, and winning back the man she loves from the evil Troll Queen. That too.

And yet, once she’s broken through the spell and won back the prince and defeated the Trolls, it’s not smooth sailing. There’s no North Wind to blow them back to civilization. The White Bear and Rose have to lead the enslaved humans back through the frozen tundra, and in the middle of trying to survive and trying to get home, there is too much that needs to be said and too much that can’t be said between Rose and the White Bear, and watching them fight through that to their eventual conclusion is so much more fulfilling than the easy happily ever after. And that is what Pattou delivers.

From start to finish, this is a magnificent book. Does it have what I’ve looking for in an adaptation? Let's head to the checklist, shall we?

Kick-ass but flawed heroine? Check. Rose is the girl from the fairy tale given three dimensional form. She's headstrong and stubborn and overly curious, but when she cares about someone, she cares whole-heartedly. She adventurous, brave, and willing to take responsibility for her actions. She is marvelous.

Dimension given to other players? Yes. The other voices of the story -- the father, Neddy, the white bear, the troll queen -- are all distinct and different, which is wonderful. But beyond that, the smaller players are wonderfully diverse. The four "winds" in particular are fabulous, but they’re all rich and wonderful characters.

Eliminating the repetition? Check and Check. The way Pattou handled the journey portion of the story was masterful, but then, that just fits in with the novel as a whole. 

This book has been near the top of my All Time Favorites list for many years now, and there it remains, both as a general favorite, a fantastically told story, and a truly masterful fairy tale adaptation.


  1. Love this book -- excellent review, dear.

  2. Would you believe that I had never heard of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" until I found this blog? I don't even remember how I stumbled upon this blog, but I'm glad I did.

    After reading your retrospectives I went and got East, and I'm reading it now and enjoying it a lot. So, thanks for the blog, and Merry Christmas.

  3. Excellent Review!!! If I might add a suggestion - the colors were very hard for me to read! I think a different color font and different color background would be more pleasing to the eyes.