Without a name, a child cannot be baptized, and trolls have been known to steal unbaptized children, but when her mother refuses to name her over her displeasure at bearing another girl, the baby becomes simply the pika, or girl. Her favorite brother Hans Peter calls her Lass. One day, however, an act of mercy to a white hart gives her a secret name and the ability to speak with animals. It’s only the beginning of the Lass’ adventure, for shortly after, a white bear comes to their home and insists she spend a year living in his palace. In this heartfelt retelling of an old Nordic tale, the Lass will follow her heart east of the moon and west of the sun to set things to rights, and along the way she’ll encounter hope and despair, kindess and cruelty, compassion and selfishness, all in a world so much bigger than the simple woodcutter’s house she calls home.
I’ve probably mentioned before how much I love retellings. There’s just something amazing to me about taking a story that’s already well loved and making it even more, of personalizing it and- in the case of some stories- making it more accessible. Most people don’t know the old Nordic tales. Not just the sweeping sagas but the simpler folk tales tend to get missed in favor of stories that are easier to find, the more traditional fairy tales. I grew up familiar with the story this is based on (East of the Sun, West of the Moon) because my mother’s family is Swedish and Norwegian. Her great-aunts swore in Swedish, cooked with measurements like pinch, dash, and skosh, and were six foot tall busty blondes who lived actively and energetically into their late 90’s. They told my grandmother and mother, my grandmother and mother told me, so I grew up on this story and always loved it. It was like a Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast, but SO much cooler.
This is a story that unfolds slowly, that really builds the world around you so you feel the ache of a winter that’s lasted far too long. The Lass is the youngest of nine children, each of them distinct in their own ways, each of them with different sets of expectations laid upon them by their mother Frida. She’s closest to Hans Peter, the eldest, who was away for many years on a voyage and came back greatly changed. He spends his days by the hearth now, carving figurings he soon burns, weighed down by sorrow and a haunting experience he won’t speak of even to the Lass.
It takes strength to thrive within emotional neglect, and the Lass shows that strength again and again. She isn’t unloved- her father and Hans Peter both adore her, and her siblings to varying degrees; even Frida would probably admit to loving her youngest if pressed- but despite the dangers presented by having no name, she doesn’t let herself become crippled by fear or doubt. When adventure presents itself, along with a way to help her family, she takes it. Most girls wouldn’t go off with an enormous bear that would as soon eat you as not, but she does, and she adjusts to the strange life in the northern palace with her spellbound companions.
At first this seems like a story about gaining- gaining a name, gaining chances and advancement- but it’s also a story about loss. It’s not just the family she left behind but also the sense of loss that pervades her new companions and the stories written into the ice walls of the palace. Sorrow weaves through her companions, sorrow without hope of surcease, with a painful dignity won by the sheer press of years and experience- a sorrow much like that which weighs down her brother.
It’s also a mystery, a story of clues and secrets and the careful, cautious search to unravel them and piece everything together. Clearly a talking bear who lives in a palace with bound servants unlike any human form presents a puzzle, as does the appearance of a strange man in her bed each night who makes no move to touch or harm her but also refuses to sleep elsewhere. The Lass has to be careful about it- the forces at work within these puzzles show no hesitation to punish the creatures under its thrall, and it’s incredibly painful to the Lass to know that others are dying as a direct result of her efforts.
The journey that unfolds is beautiful, not just in a physical sense of the world the Lass explores, but the people and creatures she encounters on the way. Everything is connected, sometimes in a delicate, tenuous fashion that could break with the slightest stress, and sometimes with chains so solid it seems impossible they could ever break. Each grace she’s given, every kindness, gives her greater strength, and each obstacle forces her to use that newly won strength. It may be slow but it’s far from stagnant, and every step of the way stirs the blood.
There’s an incredible journey, joy and loss, new friends, sacrifices born of love like no other, and the strength that comes of a lifetime of untenable odds. This is a beautiful story, a masterful retelling, and a book to lose yourself in.
Until next time~