The Snow Queen arrived on my doorstep on an unseasonably cold March day. I grabbed a blanket, curled up in my favorite chair, and read the book in a matter of a few hours. The Snow Queen is a short novel, a single-sitting book if you’re a fast reader like me, yet more enchanting than many longer works. Nothing is superfluous here; Eileen Kernaghan tells the story she has come to tell — a mythic reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name — and that’s it.
The enchantment begins with the lovely cover, graced with an illustration drawn from a 1913 book of fairy tales. Then, in the first paragraph, I was taken back to my childhood storybooks as Gerda and Kai sat among the flowerboxes, conversing across the narrow space between their townhouses. The setting is homey and familiar, both to the characters and to readers who grew up with this fairy tale, but all is not well. Kai has grown snobbish and callous, insulting Gerda’s poetry as “childish.” He has set aside poetry and dreams for the coldly logical world of mathematics. And now a stranger, the mysterious Baroness Aurore, has come to town. Kai is quite taken with her, and she takes him on a long journey. He does not return.
Gerda, worried, sets off to find him, but the journey proves much longer and more difficult than expected. Along the way she is robbed and taken in by the robber-girl, Ritva, who has a story of her own. Ritva is a shaman-in-training who isn’t so sure she wants her mystical talents and longs to run away from her family. When Gerda resumes her adventure, Ritva goes with her. Ritva is as street-smart and cynical as Gerda is trusting and naive, and they butt heads at first, but in the end they forge a wonderful bond. Neither of them could accomplish this mission without the other, and they face the Snow Queen as a powerful team. I long for a sequel; the ending leaves me wondering what Gerda and Ritva do with the lives that lie ahead of them, and whether Kai ever grows up.
The Snow Queen is a wonderful book, blending Andersen’s tale with Finnish myth and legend, and emphasizing the young-woman-coming of-age and female-friendship themes above all. It’s true enough to the original tale that it feels like rediscovering a lost treasure from childhood, yet it’s a rediscovery through new eyes.