Friday, May 18, 2012

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: When the Lass was born, her mother was so upset to have yet another useless girl that she refused to name the child. Growing up, her father was terrified that, because she was nameless, she would be stolen by the trolls, so the Lass spent most of her life shut up in her family’s cottage with only her eldest brother for company.

Until the isbjorn, the white bear, comes to their door and whisks her away. At his palace, the Lass is confronted with a harrowing mystery – one that she is all the more desperate to solve because it matches so closely with the mystery surrounding her dear eldest brother. But her curiosity does her in, and when she sets off to set right the wrongs she caused, she discovers that the cycle has been going on for longer than anyone imagined. No one yet has been strong enough to put an end to it, but if stubbornless and love can do, the Lass is determined to succeed.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

More than either of the two adaptations I’ve read so far this month, this book reads like a fairy tale. East begins with a description of a woman going through an old trunk. Ice begins with Cassie hunting polar bears on the Arctic ice. But Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow begins thusly: “Long ago and far away in the land of ice and snow, there came a time when it seemed that winter would never end.” Have no doubt, ladies and gentlemen. You are reading a fairy tale.

This tone continues for the entire book, using phrasing and words that are more formal, more old-fashioned, and therefore more universal that everyday language. Phrases that, in other words, immediately evoke fairy tales.

It is interesting to see common fairy tale tropes expanded into novel form because things that we will wave away easily in a fairy tale (such as characters without names), become much harder to accept in a longer story format. But I like how George handles it. In the original story, our girl has no name. Many authors will take the, “that’s because fairy tales often do not name their characters; here’s the name you were never told” route, which is perfectly valid. But George, from the get-go, takes us in another, fascinating direction. We never learned the name of the girl in the fairy tale because she had no name to be given. Her mother (who in this story is a horrifying piece of work) refused to name her at her birth because the girl had the audacity to not be a boy, and so, her family refers to her merely as “the pika,” which means “girl” in their language.

All except her eldest brother, Hans Peter, who calls her Lass because it is more welcoming and friendly sounding than “pika.” And here we have a second adaptation that gives us a close relationship with an older brother, but George’s Hans Peter is much different from Pattou’s Neddy. Hans Peter is the oldest sibling, for one, who should have long ago left his parents’ home. He did, for a time, working as a sailor. But then he disappeared from his ship, and when he eventually returned home, he was as close to a broken man as one can be and still be sane. He does not speak of what happened to him, but there is a sadness that surrounds him that fascinates the Lass. He sits by the fire and carves strange designs that he claims are a picture language. He has a white fur parka that is covered with embroidery of the same, strange pictures. And he reacts so fiercely, so violently, when his brother Askel intends to hunt and kill a white bear that has been sighted recently near the village.

And when the white bear comes to the cottage to ask for the Lass, Hans Peter is the one most firmly against her going. She must not go, he tells her, begs her not to go with him. But her family is poor. And the farm is failing. And the Lass has never been able to make her mother proud. And here is this white bear, promising to reverse all that, and so her mother is demanding that she go. She wants to finally be of use, but also, she wants to find a way to help Hans Peter, and so she agrees. Disappointed but resigned, Hans Peter gives her his white fur parka to take with her. And so she goes off with the isbjorn.

And here we start to see some differences in the curse’s parameters. For one thing, the bear promises the Lass that she only needs to come with him for a year. After a year, she will be free to return home. In the original story and in the other versions, the length of time is undisclosed, and is often interpreted as “forever.” But here we have a firm time frame – with a catch. It is not enough to simply live in the palace with the white bear and sleep with him in the room each night. The Lass must sleep in the same bed, beside him, all night, or the night doesn’t count. We know this because her first reaction to the visiting stranger is fear, and when she can’t get him to leave, she pulls a blanket out and sleeps in front of the fire. He lets her do this for two nights, but on the third, he physically follows her and carries her back to the bed until she stays there. It’s something of a shock to the reader, but it falls right in with what the author is trying to do.

Throughout the novel, George shows us a much harsher and more nefarious curse being enacted. The castle where the Lass stays is staffed by a number of wondrous creatres: a faun, a selkie, a gargoyle, salamanders, and many more. They are there to serve the Lass and the isbjorn, but she is not supposed to talk with them or interact with them. Stubborn, curious, and stubbornly curious, she breaks this rule again and again. She is not content to simply stay in the castle for a year and then return home. She came to solve the mystery of her brother, of the picture writing, of the isbjorn, and she is determined to do so, despite admonishments from any number of directions.

She asks question after question of the servants and the bear, trying to discover why they are here and who it is that has enslaved them and how. She stubbornly works to decipher the language carved all around her, and when she finally wears Erasmus the faun down to tell her his story, he is taken from the palace and killed. Horrified, the Lass turns her questions to the selkie, trying to find out what happened to Erasmus, if the same person who cursed the isbjorn has taken him as well, and when the selkie in anger speaks, she, too, is taken away and killed. Angry and hurt and still demanding answers, the gargoyle takes pity on the Lass and as quickly and carefully as she can, gives her a handful of answers, but she, likewise, is punished in the harshest way for this.

The Lass is far more stubbornly curious than the other girls we have seen. They had a natural curiosity, and while the Lass has that as well, there’s always the undercurrent running beneath it of, “I’m going to keep poking my nose around until I find out what’s going on!” and her attempts to uncover the truth are always stronger just after she’s been told yet again to let it go and just live out her year.

But she just can’t do that because what she’s discovering is something frightening and sinister. The story she is translating on the pillars and the mantle speaks of a princess who is so desperate to be loved that she punishes all who refuse to. This troll princess outlives every other species by centuries, and so she has outlived husband after husband after husband, and she always needs a new one. But the first made her swear that each new husband she took must have a way out. And so, the princess devised this little game. Her husband-to-be will be enchanted as a white bear. If a girl can sleep beside him for one year without seeing his face, he will be free. But if she looks, the bear must then marry her until he dies. And then she searches for a new husband, and the cycle begins all over again.

By making the story cyclical rather than the one-time dealing that we have seen before, George makes the story so much more sinister and horrifying. The troll princess hasn’t done this to just one man, she’s done this to dozens if not hundreds, and a girl making it through the year doesn’t mean she’ll stop. It just means that that one man will not be forced to marry her. But that has never happened. The closest who came was the Lass’s brother, Hans Peter. The girl who stayed with him changed the embroidery on his parka, altering his enchantment, allowing him to escape the troll princess’s clutches.

But the troll princess knows everything that goes on in the castle, and her reach extends everywhere. In this version, it is not homesickness that draws the girl back to her family, it is an accident. Her father was crushed by a falling tree, and her family is pleading with her to come back. She begs the bear for the chance to see her dying father, and he eventually agrees to let her go for five days, but those are five days she will have to make up. While we are never told directly that the troll princess caused this accident, we have every reason to interpret it that way, because it isn’t until she goes home that she spills the secret of her nights in the castle and her sister sends her back with a candle made in a Christian home that will light through any enchantment.

And so she looks. And I like the interpretation of this moment that the cyclical nature of the story gives us here. Instead of feeling betrayed or hurt or angry, the isbjorn is just resigned and disappointed – the Lass is just another girl who failed, who looked, because they always look, we learn in that moment. No girl in the history of this horrible scheme has made it to the end of the year without looking, not even Hans Peter’s girl.

Angry at the troll princess for all she’s done, the pain she’s caused, and the enchantment that will not end, the Lass refuses to accept that she has failed. She will find her way to the land of the trolls. And here, in her journey, we see the cycle again. The three old women she meets are not just random mysterious women; they once stayed with an isbjorn in a castle, too. They, like the Lass, failed and looked. This interpretation ties them more firmly into the story and gives us the sense of just how long this has been going on.

The longer she journeys, the fewer the girls who have made it this far, until by the time she reaches the North Wind, only one other girl has ever been blown as far as the land of the trolls – Tova, the girl who loved Hans Peter.

Once the Lass makes it to the land of the trolls, the story plays out exactly as expected. She finds Tova, who is a slave in the palace, and Tova helps the Lass find a way to not just break the enchantment on her isbjorn, but end the princess once and for all, for that is the only way to end the cycle truly. Trolls, in this version, can only destroy or mimic, they cannot create. They cannot perform the “homely tasks” that young girls grow up knowing. And so, they cannot wash the shirt clean, but the Lass can. The Princess is so enraged that she attempts to end the Lass’s life – a move which breaks her promise, so she is killed, and the Queen goes mad watching what becomes of her daughter. The cycle is ended, and the Lass can return home with her isbjorn – now a prince named Asher – and bring Tova home to Hans Peter as well. Happy endings all around.

This was the first novel of Jessica Day George’s I ever read, and it laid the foundation of “this woman can do no wrong” that has grown only stronger with each book she publishes. Now, this is not a perfect adaptation. The whole bit with Tova being Hans Peter’s maiden and the only one who almost made it all the way has a feeling of “Of course,” to it. I also wanted the naming of the Lass to play a larger role in the end (Earlier in the story, the Lass is named by a white reindeer that she rescues. This name is kept secret until the very end), but instead of actually having a name being central to anything, it’s just . . . she has a name! Yay! And I felt like that moment lost some of its potential.

But overall, I like what George does with the story. I love the cycles, that what we’re seeing isn’t the first or second or third time this has happened, but the hundredth or two hundredth, and that freeing one isbjorn is not equal to breaking the curse. It’s a very smart move, and it adds a whole new layer to the story that I really appreciated. It’s a brand new take, and I love that George found a way to make the story her own.

Kick-ass but flawed heroine? Check. This girl is annoying pig-headed sometimes, but you can’t help but like her. Dimension given to other players? Hans Peter, certainly. And the women were fleshed out nicely. I also like that some of the dimension was negative – there really is nothing redeeming about the Lass’s mother in this version, and her brother Askel is horrible as well. Eliminating the repetition? Condensing it, at least. The winds were still a little too similar, but we got through all that very quickly, so it didn’t bother me.

Overall, a wonderful adaptation definitely worth putting on your reading list.

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