October 2007

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm

The frozen lands of the North have long held an almost mythological fascination for inhabitants of more temperate climates. How many children have grown up on stories of polar explorers, Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales of the North, or more recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with its armored bears and witches and magical-scientific explanation for the aurora borealis?

In The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, Barbara Sjoholm draws only occasionally on Anderson’s story of the Snow Queen, as a binding emotional thread running through her travelogue-memoir of her time spent in the far north of Sweden and Finland, in the traditional lands of the Sami. The Palace of the Snow Queen is another fascinating, occasionally mythological account of the North, which is changing like everywhere else to meet the challenges of modern life and global climate change.

Sjoholm, a writer and translator, first decided to visit Sweden in winter to escape everything familiar after personal unhappiness and then the events of 9/11. The Palace of the Snow Queen opens in Kiruna, Sweden, where she goes to see the Winter Place or ICEHOTEL, the first and most famous ice hotel. Every winter, over 13,000 people spend a night in ICEHOTEL, not because it is comfortable but because it is an experience.
                       
She learns about reindeer and about dogsledding, an import for tourism that negatively impacts the reindeer herds of the indigenous Sami. And she learns about the Sami themselves, who have grown increasingly dependent on tourism and not are always accepted by Swedes and Finns. There is cultural tension here, and the pressure of commercialism complicates the issues further.

At the same time, the North is a place of artistic innovation as well as commercialism. Sjoholm describes an international film festival about indigenous peoples, shown on an outdoor screen of snow at the ICEHOTEL, and a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Sami, with the actors clothed in elaborate fur and wool costume over long underwear.

“After this,” Sjoholm writes, “it would be hard to see a production of Macbeth where frost did not hang in a cloud around an actor’ mouth and to feel the play was historically accurate.”

 The North Sjoholm describes is not a wasteland to be braved by intrepid explorers but a place of surprising and unusual creativity, producing both traditional and experimental art.

Sjoholm’s writing is beautiful and vivid, with a precise and emotionally effective command of the language. Along with her own emotional journey, likened to Gerda in Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” she weaves in observations on the power of snow and ice over human experience, as well as reflections upon history. Her portrait of the challenges facing the different cultures she encounters -- both from tourism and exploitation and from global climate change -- is equally compelling.

There are not many books I read in a weekend, pausing only to eat and sleep. This is one of them. The Palace of the Snow Queen is a spectacular book, not to be missed by anyone fascinated with the North, or anyone who enjoys reflections on culture, art, and history.

And it’s a good story.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN: 1593761597
320 Pages