MARCH 21, 2014
FAIRY AND FOLK TALES are stuffed with magic words and phrases, from “mirror, mirror on the wall” to “open sesame” to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.” But in Norway’s “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” the most powerful hocus pocus comes from the simple “yes” and “no” — words of bargains and betrothals. In her 2010 retelling, Ice, Sarah Beth Durst underscores these themes of agreement and refusal, updating them for today’s post-feminist audience.
While the GPS coordinates heading each chapter suggest Durst meant Ice as an “East of the Sun” for the tech-savvy set, the novel turns out to be less about the iPhone Age than about the age of consent. When protagonist Cassie turns 18 in her father’s research station in the Arctic Circle, a polar bear aptly named Bear comes seeking her hand in marriage. The daughter of a biologist, Cassie balks at the talking Ursus maritimus on her doorstep, not to mention the ensuing revelation that she’s the granddaughter of the North Wind. Since when did bears pitch their woo at human teenagers? Who knew meteorological phenomena have human families? These are things you have to roll with when you’re the star (or reader) of a fairy tale, even one with snowmobiles and post docs.
So what’s with the bear? Years ago the North Wind had promised Bear Cassie’s mom, his adopted daughter, who instead shunned her mystical heritage to marry a human scientist. For most of her life, Cassie has thought her mother dead, when in reality she was blown East of the Sun and West of the Moon by the furious North Wind, who doomed his daughter to imprisonment by the trolls.
Now Bear’s back and ready to take Cassie, offered to him years ago by her mother as a consolation for their broken betrothal. Like her Nordic fairy tale counterpart, Cassie initially rejects her suitor’s proposal with a hearty refusal: “no to him, no to this, no to everything.” But while “East of the Sun’s” leading lady soon changes her mind due to pressures from her dowry-seeking dad, Ice‘s empowered heroine gives in of her own volition, countering Bear’s offer with a new one: she will marry him if he agrees to save her mother.
So Durst sets up the tale as a complicated series of trades: a wife traded for a daughter, a daughter traded for a husband, a wife traded for a mother. That last deal, Cassie’s deal, is sealed with a magic word: “Yes, she’d said. Yes, her mother was alive. Yes, Cassie would save her.” And Bear throws in his own “yeses” to complete the contract: “Yes, this will fulfill the bargain. Yes, this will bring your mother back to life.”
At first, Cassie doesn’t realize how binding her “yes” will be: “It was only words. She didn’t have to mean them. She just had to say them.” But when Bear frees Cassie’s mother and fulfills his side of the bargain, Cassie has no choice but to follow him to his castle, where he initiates a plan to win her heart.
Though it follows the general structure of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” Ice surrounds its protagonist with more of a support system than most fairy tale heroines receive. There’s the twitchy Jamie, a young Inuit soul handler who saves Cassie’s life after a brutal fall; Cassie’s stern but loving Gram; and boisterous pilot Max, Cassie’s long-time role model. It’s probably from Gram and Max that Cassie gets her likeable gutsiness, which allows her to trade the fairy tale’s refrain of, “No, I’m not afraid” for the more modern teen-accessible “Like hell I am.” Unlike “East of the Sun’s” heroine, Cassie issues another firm “no” when Bear sneaks into her bedroom under the cloak of darkness to sex her while in the form of a man. Durst’s most interesting change is the addition of a complex mythology that explains Bear’s furry shape and supernatural powers: he is a munasqri, a shapeshifter who ushers souls into and out of the living world.
Despite Durst’s successful additions to make the story relatable, the novel does have one problem, and unfortunately it’s a doozy. Durst skips past most of Cassie and Bear’s courtship, describing it in a montage of ice sculpting and a too-short, Beauty and the Beast-like dance scene that leaves their romance less than convincing. (At least in “East of the Sun”’s antecedent, “Cupid and Psyche” a prick from Cupid’s arrow explains the girl’s sudden shift from “I hate you” to “Let’s bone.”) And when Bear reveals he’s magicked Cassie’s hormones to circumvent her birth control and impregnate her without her consent, it’s hard to see why she doesn’t drag him to polar bear divorce court and sue him for all he’s worth, when we don’t fully understand their relationship in the first place.
As in the original tale, Cassie accidentally voids her contract with Bear by giving into her curiosity and shining a light on him while he is sleeping, revealing that at night he is no beast but a YA-approved man-hunk. Trouble is, to free Cassie’s mother from troll prison, Bear had to sign off on yet another contract. Stipulation 1: if Cassie looks upon Bear’s human face at night, he must marry the hideous troll princess. The term kicks in immediately: Winds sweep Bear away, the magic keeping his ice palace frozen fails, and the pregnant Cassie finds herself alone and freezing in the Arctic Circle.
The rest of the novel follows Cassie as she quests to find and free her husband, despite his tricking her into bearing his munaqsri child. At this point, the novel offers us a deep discussion of choice and consent, as other munaqsri impede Cassie’s progress in the name of protecting the “little mother’s” magic fetus. In the most politically-pointed chapter, a munaqsri named Father Forest controls Cassie’s body with magic vines and forces her to remain barefoot and pregnant in his kitchen for months on end. Only by taking control of her body by throwing herself down rivers, off mountains, and into an ocean is Cassie able to save herself, her baby, her husband, and thousands of lost polar bear souls. While Durst’s themes get slightly muddled toward the end, it appears she is arguing that the best way to save lives is to be pro-choice.
It’s a nice change of pace from the original “East of the Sun” story, a morality tale apparently meant to train pre-adolescent girls in the ways of wifely obedience. In that narrative, the heroine saves the day with the application of a carding comb, spinning wheel, and some well-timed weeping, which inspires other prisoners in the troll castle to help her husband free himself. The takeaway lesson? “Obey your father, obey your beast of husband, do your chores, and you’ll be fine. Worst-case scenario, cry a little. It’s how the powerless manipulate others.”
As Cassie would say, to hell with that. While I’m still not on board with her final decision to stay with Bear despite his birth control tampering, Cassie’s resourcefulness, mental fortitude, and occasional vulnerability make her a compelling, feminist-approved protagonist. Ice might disappoint as a romance, but that’s not really the point: as a female-led adventure story, it’s first-rate. But I may be biased. When it comes to feminist re-envisionings of traditional folk tales, all I can say is, “Yes, yes, yes.”