9/21/13

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Jackie Morris

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Jackie Morris (Francis Lincoln Children's Books, March 2013), is a beautiful retelling of the titular fairy tale, beautiful in part because of the lovely water colors that grace many pages, but also because of how very satisfactory the retelling is.   It is a really good book that deserves its Kirkus star.

In this version, the white bear comes to an American city to visit a family living in poverty and despair.  They had fled their homeland after the father, a journalist, was arrested and tortured by the government...but they have not yet found sanctuary as political refugees.   The great bear promises that all will be well with them...if the oldest daughter comes away with him...

So she does, and sticking very closely to the original, the girl and the bear live together in a beautiful palace (though with no windows), and every night in the darkness someone gets into bed with her.   Then comes visit home, the tinderbox from her mother, and the realization that the bear is under an enchantment, broken too soon, and bringing an end to what might have been a happy ever after of love.

And here comes the first little twist--the bear prince admits that it's actually just as much his fault for not having the will power to stay away.  Which made me pause, and think that it is really rather creepy that he is getting into bed with her in the first place in the dark all secret like, and she still just a kid, but regardless, now he has to go off to the troll palace east of the sun and west of the moon, to marry the troll princesses.

So the girl (we don't know her name at this point), sets off to find him, not knowing where to go, and in a beautifully described journey meets three wise old sisters, one by one, who send her to the winds, and at last she arrives at the gates of the North Wind, the only one who can take her where she needs to go, and the first person in the book to call her by name (Breneen).  But he wants to win her heart for himself...and she must decide whether to stay and rejoice in the wild beauty and power he can offer, or keep on after the bear prince.

The next bit I will make white, because it a spoiler, but without telling it I can't convey why I liked the ending so much.

Breneen goes on after the bear prince, and saves him from the trolls, but then---she decides not to marry him.  She was a girl when they lived together, she only knew him one day in human form, and she realizes, so wisely, that there is no particular reason why they should end up marrying each other.  Just because he needed her doesn't mean it's true love...

If you are thinking about Christmas presents already, as I am, this one would be a very satisfactory book to give to give to an older reader reader of fairy tales.  It is a very "presenty" sort of book, what with all its illustrations, some double spreads, some little decorations,  it's quirky, friendly, size (smaller and squarer than most books), and the generous margins giving the words lots of room to breath (and after I wrote this, I read on  Jackie Morris' website that this is exactly what she had in mind for its design!).    The illustrations are truly lovely, and you can see some them via that same link.

I say older reader as gift recipient deliberately, as it's a retelling  that I think works best for people who have already been down the road of the original, and who will appreciate it anew, and perhaps even more, in its new form.  A marker right at the beginning--a brief mention of prostitutes and drug dealers as part of the description of the city--made me realize I wasn't reading an illustrated version of a fairy tale for young children, and the circumstances of Breneen's family, illegal immigrants who had to flee from torture, clarified that.   (You can read more about Morris' decision to take this path at this interview at Playing By the Book).   I hit to the prostitutes and drug dealers on page, didn't want to be in a gritty urban setting, felt confused, and put the book down for several days...but I picked it up again, and was very glad I did (the gritty part doesn't last long, and the fact that it was there to begin with adds heft to the story).

But as well as that, older readers, I think, are more likely to grin at the way the ending (more spoiler) subverts the stereotypeof the "happily ever after" as I said in the first spoiler; Breneen gets to grow up, and become her own person, and not stick around just because the prince once needed her. 

In short, though it's marketed for readers 11-14 year old, and while I think it's just fine for them, the romantic fairy tale loving adult is an equally suitable reader.   I myself picked it up to see if it belonged in my category of the Cybils (ages 9-12), and I think if it were nominated, it would be happier in YA. 

Final thought: I'm counting this an example of diversity in fantasy even though I can't tell you what country Breneen is from--it's never stated, the name is not easily placed (as far as I could see) and the illustrations are ambiguous.  I look at the cover, and can see a Middle Eastern girl, or an Asian girl, or a Central American girl (at the moment I'm seeing her as Asian)--but in any event, she's not from northern Europe!


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