Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is an ultimately frustrating retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Norse fairytale about a girl (who is never referred to by name) and an enchanted white bear. It just happens to be one of my favorite fairy tales. Jessica Day George stays very true to the original story, while judiciously adding details to fill out the sparseness of the tale. She gives us a reason that the girl in the story has no name, some background on the bear and how he became enchanted, explains who the hags are, and gives personalities to the four Winds.
In Ms. George’s telling there are a few twists that don’t occur in the version that I am familiar with. For example, the bear is the latest in a long line of enchanted man-bears trying to win their freedom from the curse of the Troll Queen. The girl, who is referred to as Pika (Norwegian for ‘girl’) meets and rescues a magical white deer that gifts her with the ability to talk to animals. Thus, Pika can understand the bear and can communicate with her pet wolf.
In the story, a great white bear comes to the poor woodcutters cottage and asks for the youngest daughter to come away with him. Before the girl agrees to go with the bear, she asks for wealth for her poor family. The surprising way this is accomplished is used to teach a lesson about ‘wishing wisely.’ That scene and the consequences of her questioning the servants in the castle where she goes to live with the bear both lend a slightly darker tone to what would otherwise be a rather fluffy retelling. Pika never seems truly affected by either event which I found somewhat disturbing.
Also disturbing is [this is a spoiler, so highlight the following text if you want to read it] an annoying sub-plot with Pika’s brother Hans Peter (who was the bear prior to the current one) and Tova who helped him escape his fate. Hans ‘comes home from the sea’ when Pika is very young and spends the rest of the story carving wooden animals and being depressed. Tova ends up enslaved in the Troll castle, and because she still loves Hans Peter, Tova assists Pika in saving her true love. The plan is to allow Pika and Asher to escape while Tova would be left behind. They all manage to escape in the end, but Pika was willing to go off and leave Tova as long as she got her man. The more I think about this story, the more annoyed I am with this child because she has no remorse over anything. And for the rest of this rant, why isn’t Hans out trying to rescue his love? I know this is a fairy tale where the girls do all the work of rescuing their princes, but honestly, when Tova finally gets reunited with him she’s worried that she isn’t beautiful enough for him, her hands are rough, and she doesn’t have a dowry. Strong, capable, resourceful female until a man is on the scene. Aughh! I know. It’s just a folk tale. As such it’s a good one. This is just a pet peeve of mine. Rant over… [END SPOILER}
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is billed as a YA novel, but it reads like it was written for the 9-12 age range. The story is told in a very simplistic manner: This happened, and then this happened, and then Pika had to go do this so everyone can live happily ever after. I was hoping for more emotion and depth. There was more emotion in the Author’s Note than there was in the novel itself. The story and lesson is all there but, somewhere along the way, the magic got lost. The characters never came to life. Many fairy tales have cardboard characters, but I expect more from an embellished retelling — more than just filling in some details. I read retellings to find out more about the characters: What would motivate a girl to go off into the wilderness with a great white bear? Because he asked nicely? Why did the bear pick that particular girl? As I tell my kids when they ask why improbable events pop up in a movie: ‘because it was in the script.’ It’s a fairy tale, let’s just keep reading.
If what you are looking for is a re-told fairy tale, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow will fill an hour or two quite nicely. I would recommend it for younger readers, and those who enjoy a twice-told fairy tale. If you want a retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” that has a little more depth, I’d recommend East by Edith Pattou.