A Polar Bear Journey

“You have travelled far, but the hardest part of a journey is always the next step.”
― Jackie Morris, East of the Sun, West of the Moon

There are some who argue that the fairy tale re-tellings genre are spoiled by already knowing the story and it’s ending. I say that the stories aren’t – it is not the ending of the story but the journey, and East by Edith Pattou certainly has a big journey, involving compasses, polar bears, ancient Seal tribes and a troll queen.eastL

East (also called North Child) begins with the marriage of Arne and superstitious Eugenia, which whom he eventually has seven children with. It is Eugenia’s belief that a person’s personality, and ultimately their destiny, is reliant on the direction that she was facing when the child was born – that is, a South-West facing birth is a South-West personality, and accordingly is named with the same SW initials. Eugenia neatly has a child for each point of the compass – until her favourite, East-born child, Elise dies, and she has another to replace her.

EBBA ROSE WAS THE NAME of our last-born child. Except it was a lie. Her name should have been Nyamh Rose. But everyone called her Rose rather than Ebba, so the lie didn’t matter. At least, that is what I told myself.

The Rose part of her name came from the symbol that lies at the center of the wind rose – which is fitting because she was lodged at the very center of my heart.

Having been told years earlier that a North child would be crushed by ice and snow, Eugenia is determined never to have a North child, and so when Rose is born, with ambiguity about her birth-direction hidden from her, and she is brought up being told that she is supposed to be an obedient, passive East child.

And so we follow Rose, that is, until one day a giant white bear comes to claim her; one who has watched her through her early life, and who is under an enchantment – and from there, Rose agrees to accompany him in return for health and prosperity for her poor family and sick sister. Pattou follows the original Norweigan story quite faithfully, although it is much more richly embroidered, in which we see the mysteries that Rose faces, and it is here that the real story beings and Rose’s real journey is revealed.

I loved the culture behind this story, that of the ancient tribe that Rose encountered, the Troll Kingdom, the history of compasses and mapmaking, and the stories behind the ship captains who carry Rose across the sea – each lend a story to the main one, showing Rose life beyond her parent’s icy gardens and the idea of love in different forms.

There are many versions of this story (including one being Beauty and the Beast), and I’m sure many of you will have read the story in one version or another. What makes this story more beautiful is the realism of it, the attention to detail in places, characters and culture that Rose is brought up in. While the Trolls and White Bear in the story have a sense of surrealism to them, which is both horrifying and magical, there is also a fiery character in Rose which shines through. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then there’s several nonsensical troll words like Slank and Turik to twist your tongue on!

Edith Patou, East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: London 2005) pp. 528, £7.99

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