This book is on my top ten favorite books list, and for good reason. I’ve come to realize that I very much liked fairy tales as a child, go figure, and this one is unique and enchanting. Rather than a retelling of a Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale, East is a reimagining of the Nordic folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” It’s a bit like Beauty and the Beast in the beginning: a beast (in this case, a white bear) approaches a poor man and offers him riches in return for his daughter. The bear takes her to his castle and every night, sleeps beside her in his true form, a beautiful young prince. For a few months the girl burns with curiosity but does not look at who else is sleeping in her bed. When she returns home, her mother gives her a candle to use at night to learn the identity of her nocturnal visitor. When the girl lights the candle, she falls deeply in love with the beautiful prince, but she also drips three drops of tallow on him.
With that act, the spell on him is broken and a worse one takes effect: if the girl had waited just a year without succumbing to her curiosity, the prince would have been transformed back into a man forever. But because she had spied, the prince is now doomed to marry a princess with a “nose three yards long.” The girl asks the prince where she can find him and he responds, “east of the sun and west of the moon.” Thus the girl’s journey begins. On the way, she enlists the help of the East Wind, West Wind, South Wind, and North Wind, and eventually battles her way to the prince’s castle.
The original tale is short and sweet, and East retains many of the details but adds a rich setting, well-developed characters, and a heavy-handed dose of Norse mythology thrown in for good measure. I’ve said before how much this novel influenced my interests as I grew older. The northern atmosphere and the subtle magical setting all played upon my senses as a child and I grew up with a love for the North and a passion for Norse mythology. But back to the story.
My favorite aspects of this novel are the main character of Rose, the way the story is woven with aspects of Nordic myth, and the author’s own fantastical inventions. Early in the novel readers learn that Rose’s mother believes in the superstition of birth directions: that the direction a woman faces when giving birth bestows on her child a certain set of characteristics–something akin to a horoscope. Eugenia, Rose’s mother, wants one child for every “point of the compass” except for north because they’re unruly wanderers, and because of a prophecy she’d heard that any north-born she bore would be crushed under snow and ice. Due to serendipitous circumstances, her last-born, Rose, is born a North and not an East, as planned. The truth is hidden from Rose and she believes she’s a true, docile East-born.
Thus Rose (whose first name is Ebba, for East) grows up an exploring child, wandering around the fjords, climbing snowy hills, and getting into mischief. She’s a headstrong child, independent and brave. Eventually, the truth of Rose’s birth is revealed, and Rose grows furious with her family (this is the part that seems far-fetched, more so than a talking bear: why was her birth direction such a big issue?). So when the white bear shows up at her door offering her family riches in exchange for her, Rose leaves in part to spite her family, and in part to gain independence.
The story is narrated by five characters: Rose, her brother Neddy, their father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. This structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. It falls into the trap that all multi-narrator novels must be wary of: character confusion. Though Rose’s voice is distinct and strong, Neddy and the father are difficult to differentiate past the first fifty pages or so. As for the White Bear, his mastery of English is limited because of his animal form, and his narrative reads like a very bad middle-school lit mag poem. In Pattou’s defense, I can imagine it’s very difficult to give a white bear a believable voice. The author is much more skilled at giving him a believable personality, and a royally tragic backstory to boot.
Rose and the White Bear live harmoniously in his castle for several months. Rose learns that the Bear loves music and used to play the flauto as a human. She develops a rapport with him not unlike that of Beauty and her Beast. They come to trust and depend on each other, until she grows homesick, receives the candle from her mother, and unleashes the curse.
In this point in the narrative, Rose’s voice becomes much stronger. This is my favorite part of the book. The East, West, North, and South Winds of the original story become real people: the drunken captain of a deadly knorr, a French mother and daughter, and an Inuit shaman who leads Rose into the heart of Norse legend: to Niflheim and Asgard, to the realms of the gods. Though the myths are altered to suit the story and some details left frustratingly vague, the beauty of the novel lies in the way it is entwined with spirituality and myth, paganism and magic. Set in the sixteenth century, the story almost seems possible. The descriptions of Niflheim and Asgard are haunting and even frightening at times, and thoroughly entrancing.
The second half of the book is by far the superior. Rose’s journey is incredibly perilous and readers will become inspired by Rose’s determination and her eagerness to correct her mistakes and save the prince. The narrative is layered with Inuit folklore, Inuit traditions and practices, pagan magic, allusions to Norse mythology, and even an allegory for the Jewish Holocaust. Rose, in the process of saving the prince, finds within herself courage and selflessness, and a willingness to sacrifice herself to save not only the man she loves, but all those who have been exploited, abused, and enslaved. Not your average fairy tale, I’d say.
Pattou, E. (2003) East. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne, Norske Folkeeventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1842-1852), translated by George Webb Dasent (1859). Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001. Retrieved from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/norway034.html.