Would you risk everything for a fairy tale? Cassie was a young girl growing up in an Arctic research station. Her grandmother used to tell her stories about Cassie’s mother, the daughter of the North Wind. The story went like this:
When the North Wind wanted a daughter he asked the Polar Bear King to kidnap for him a child. In return the North Wind promised his new daughter in marriage to the Polar Bear King. Before she came of age she met a human man and fell in love with him. When the Polar Bear King came to claim her it was to find her heart already belonged to another. The daughter of the North Wind asked him to hide her and her human love from her father and in return she would give him their first born daughter as a wife. The Polar Bear King hid them in snow and ice but it wasn’t enough. The North Wind found her when the cries from her new born was heard by one of his brothers. He came and whisked her away to a Troll Castle and she was never seen again.
Now that Cassie is grown up she realizes that her grandmother’s story was just a nice way of telling her that her mother was dead. She lives in the real world now, working at her father’s Arctic research station. She is a very literal minded aspiring scientist and is very passionate about her work tagging and tracking polar bears as part of her father’s research. On the night of her eighteenth birthday she stumbles across the largest polar bear she has ever seen. Her attempts to tag it come to naught as the bear actually seems to dissolve into a wall of ice. She breaks protocol and attempts to track the bear for hours only to return to the station defeated. When she tells her father of meeting the bear he freaks out, but not for the reasons she expects. All of a sudden he wants to send her to Anchorage. Now. Before it’s too late. It turns out her father and grandmother actually believe the fairy tale she was told in childhood is true and that the Polar Bear King has come to claim her as his bride. Thinking her family has gone insane she sneaks out to try and tag the bear again to prove it is just a bear once and for all, only to have him appear before her, and start to speak…
She was only a few yards from the door. If she lunged, she could be safely inside with solid metal between her and the bear. But she had called to him, and he had come. The tranquilizer dart that she had shot on the sea ice now lay in front of her. Impossibly, inexplicably, the bear had brought it back to her. She felt light-headed, and she knew she was shaking. She raised her eyes to look at the bear.
He was a mass of shadows at the edge of the station floodlights. She could make out the shape of his muzzle and the hunch of his shoulders. “Cassandra Dasent,” he said. His voice was a soft rumble.
She felt as if her heart had stopped beating.
What follows is a modern day re-telling of the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”. Seeing the fairy tale through the eyes of a scientist was very interesting at the beginning. Her attempts to explain away this talking bear and her family’s strange actions all come across as very realistic. As she ends up getting pulled into the fairy tale and making deals with these, to her mind imaginary, beings and enters into this completely different world she changes with it. The uniqueness of having a scientist be the protagonist in the fairy tale is gone by the final third of the book. She is just like any other young woman by the end, just herself.
I was at once disturbed by the premise of the fairy tale and surprised at how well it was handled. This is a woman raised in a western society who is now faced with an arranged marriage made before her birth. It’s a lot to take in even aside from the fact that it’s to a talking bear. When they strike a deal, her marrying him in exchange for him freeing her mother, they do become husband and wife and he whisks her away to his home. Despite the fact that they are now married he still treats her with respect and doesn’t demand anything. He even honors her choice to go if she wishes, as long as she just gives him enough of a chance to show her the life she would have if she stayed. I don’t want to spoiler too much, but let’s just say for an arranged marriage the bear is determined to win his bride through courtship and not through force, and not at all if she doesn’t want to in the first place. Still a little freaked out by the age difference (old enough to be the king while her mother was an infant?) but other than that tastefully well done.
If you know this fairy tale, or any of the many similar ones that are often told (this is kind of like a beauty and the beast of the north pole) then you know every twist and turn in advance. There are still some surprises though. Having a scientist for a wife with access to modern day technology turns out to be an unseen perk. The ending though, like I said, leave a woman stripped of all of that as her quest leaves her with little to get through but her wits, stubborn will, and sheer determination. Unfortunately these sometimes result in more harm than good and once I was just about ready to string her up for her thoughtless stubbornness.
This book also brings up an interesting theory on the point at which life truly begins, it has a mythology surrounding the concept of that being at birth. Meanwhile the actions throughout the book imply communication and validation of life before that. It definitely provides a lot for a teen to think about on both sides of the argument with subjects such as abortion, unwanted children, stillborns, a mother’s acceptance, a child’s life being valued over that of the mother’s, and, of course, childbirth. These are brought up, and generally placed in a neutral light. It is liberal leaning, in some ways, but in a lot of ways this book is meant to get kids talking about these subjects more than sway them one way or the other.
For younger kids, perhaps steer clear due to the subject matter. For older ones, especially ones that enjoy rewritten fairy tales, I say you should give this book a whirl. I definitely enjoyed this unique modern day take on an old fairy tale. Oh, and I loved the cover art. This picture does not do justice to the cover. It is very beautiful.