Series: East #1
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 1st 2003
Genres: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, MG Books, YA (Young Adult)
Format: Kindle or ebook, Paperback
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Rose has always been different.
Since the day she was born, it was clear she had a special fate. Her superstitious mother keeps the unusual circumstances of Rose's birth a secret, hoping to prevent her adventurous daughter from leaving home... but she can't suppress Rose's true nature forever.
So when an enormous white bear shows up one cold autumn evening and asks teenage Rose to come away with it--in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family--she readily agrees.
Rose travels on the bear's broad back to a distant and empty castle, where she is nightly joined by a mysterious stranger. In discovering his identity, she loses her heart-- and finds her purpose--and realizes her journey has only just begun.
East is a middle-grade or YA retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and it has already become one of my two favorite retellings. (The other is Dennis McKiernan’s Once Upon a Winter’s Night, which mixes in several other fairy tales and was intended for adults.) It’s beautifully written, magical and evocative.
Rose is a “north” child, prone to wandering. Her superstitious mother hides this from Rose for fear of losing her, but when illness and the family’s poverty threaten the life of another daughter, their mother is willing for Rose to go with the white bear in exchange for Sara’s health. Neddy and Rose’s father resist, but in the end, Rose chooses to go, setting off a chain of events that culminates in a trek to the northlands to rescue the white bear.
I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re unfamiliar with it. Suffice it to say that the original fairy tale blends elements of “Eros and Psyche” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with the Norse/Scandinavian addition of trolls.* (I suspect that Hans Christian Anderson was familiar with this tale, and loosely based “The Snow Queen” on it.) Pattou’s retelling leaves out some of the traditional elements but keeps the key aspects of the story. The anthropomorphic Winds are absent, though wind does play an important part in Rose’s adventures. Pattou’s version largely omits the golden apple, carding comb, and spinning wheel given to the girl along her quest, but Pattou’s Rose is a skilled weaver, preserving at least the reference to cloth-making.
The narration bounces between Rose, the heroine; her father; her brother Neddy; the Troll Queen; and the unnamed white bear, who is barely able to speak (his chapters are brief, terse, and powerful, in the way that contemporary poetry can be.) The changing voices offer insights into the characters and their motivations, as well as a sense of what is happening “offstage” as Rose’s story unfolds—with Rose’s family and in the troll kingdom.
East blends the real and fantasy worlds, setting Rose’s life and travels in Norway (Nord), France, and Greenland (where Rose is aided by an Inuit shaman) before she finally reaches the magical, frozen kingdom of the trolls. This blend of realism and magic gives the book a dreamlike quality while simultaneously making Rose feel more solid, more believable.
Enchanting and haunting, East is a book for all ages. Pattou writes beautifully; her deceptively simple prose glows like the opalescent dress Rose weaves in the castle within the mountain. The book is certainly appropriate for an advanced 4th- or 5th-grade reader; there’s no explicit sexual or violent content, and the book overall reads more like a MG fantasy than today’s YA. Even the main character’s age is hard to pin down. When Rose first goes away with the bear, she seems young, perhaps in her early teens. But her strength and tenacity as she searches for the troll kingdom show a growing maturity. And by the last few chapters, the feelings of both Rose and the white-bear-turned-man, though depicted subtly, are clearly both romantic and mature. Younger readers will focus on the adventure; older readers will pick up on the tensions between Rose’s enlightened father and her superstitious, traditional mother; on the selfishness of the Troll Queen’s “love”; on the hints of who the white bear may have been, the tragic inevitability of Rose’s curiosity, and the pain behind the sailor Thor’s thirst for ale. Like any good fairy tale, there are treasures here for young and old alike.
NOTE: East has also been published under the title North Child. A sequel, West, was released in October 2018.
Other retellings of East of the Sun, West of the Moon
- Mistress of the Wind by Michelle Diener (YA) (review)
- Ice by Sarah Beth Durst (YA)
- Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George (MG or YA) (review)
- Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis McKiernan (adult)
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- The Backlist Reader Challenge 2018