North Child by Edith Pattou (2003)
I read this many years ago when it was first published, long ago enough to have forgotten the details, so it was like reading it anew, and it's every bit as good as I remember– it has the feel of an undated classic. I understand this goes by the title of East in the US version, and North Child in the UK, but they are one and the same story.
North Child is a retelling of the Norwegian folktale East Of the Sun, West Of the Moon. In the traditional version (there are variations) a poor cottager with a large family is visited by a great, white bear who promises to make him rich if he will give him his youngest daughter. The cottager refuses, and the bear leaves, saying he will come back in a week’s time. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter has determined that she will go when the bear returns, and so she does.
The white bear carries her away to a magical castle where she has every luxury by day, but is troubled by night to find that a mysterious person lays down beside her, only to be gone again in the morning. Time passes, and her desire to see who her mystery bedfellow is overwhelms her, so one night she lights a candle and discovers it is a handsome young prince. He awakes when she drips candle wax on him, and cries out that she has failed him, for if she had lived with him one full year without looking on him he would have been released from the curse he was under - to be a bear by day and man by night. Now he will be taken to a witch’s castle 'east ‘o the sun and west ‘o the moon', and so he and the castle disappears.
She sets off to find him, and with the help of the north, south and west winds, and the people she meets on the way, she finds the castle, where she breaks the curse (which involves washing the candlewax out of his shirt) and she and her prince escape.
As mentioned in my first post, the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the oldest recorded story that this folktale originates from, as does Beauty and the Beast. Edith Pattou adds her own twists and new motifs to the story, including mapmaking and weaving, Inuit shamanism and Northern mythology. It’s a wonderful retelling, full of vivid description, memorable characters, and told in an interesting way by alternating the first-person viewpoint of five characters.
This was perfect wintertime reading with its settings of Norway and Northern lands of ice and snow. I have read that there may be a film version being made, and also a sequel written - here’s hoping for both!