Review by Deborah K. Frontiera
This nonfiction travelog/personal story The Palace of the Snow Queen by Barbara Sjoholm details her inward and outward journeys over three winter trips above the Arctic Circle in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Originally published by Counterpoint Press in 2007, the new edition by U of Minnesota Press has been updated and reworked. I had previously read and reviewed From Lapland to Sápmi: Collecting and Returning Sami Craft and Culture, and at the time, I wondered where the idea for that book had originated since the author is American. From the first chapter of this “new” book, I realized it was a “prequel,” and by the end understood why the author returned so many times to that far-north region to meet and interview more people and research in such depth. The Palace of the Snow Queen is her personal journey to “falling in love with” the region and its people.
Right off the bat, she fills the reader’s eyes with vivid descriptions, where we can see and feel the “fairytale” of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as it is romanticized, but also taste the reality of the area and its people. “Mid-November and already it was dusk, the blue hour, when the slate-colored show looks colder than white.” And later, on page 16 states, “Scandinavians tend to call their homeland Nordkalotten—the Northern Skullcap—a nickname for how the far North fits like a hat over the top of their several countries.” The first section of the book, “Early Winter,” relates the adventures of her first winter trip to places she had visited many times in summer. It was her attempt to move on after a painful end to a relationship, the desire for a fairytale escape from emotional pain, but it turned into an education in reality and her intense desire to learn more. This theme of fantasy and tourist expectation vs. the reality of people’s lives and what those who live there want is a theme throughout the book, but especially in Part II, “Midwinter”, and III, “Late Winter,” relating to her return two and three years later to immerse herself in a seemingly “adopted” home.
She poses important questions to ask readers concerning ways to make a living and what people want tourists to leave with—the “romance” of the past, or the real lives of the people they visit, especially in areas where indigenous people want to protect their culture while living within the modern world. As a Yooper of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I could relate to that—the tourist dollars are needed, but sometimes we’d like to yell, “Just leave us alone!” We must preserve precious history, but not try to keep living in it.
In Part I, the author/journalist tries all the usual winter tourist adventures. She watches the building of the annual “Ice Hotel”, art for art’s sake:
“Ice castles have been constructed as glorious ice candy, to be looked at, not lived in. The Icehotel at Jukkasjärvi, in contrast, was not particularly spectacular on the outside, being more or less a series of white molehills on the land. It wasn’t built by an empress, much less in a grand city. It existed on the periphery of Swedish Lapland, in the country’s northernmost province, in a village of only a few hundred people. It was minimalist, vernacular, sacred in its shapes. It was meant to be experienced from within.”
The author goes on to describe the intricate inner architecture, ice bar, with glasses made of ice, and incredible works of ice art throughout the inside, all made to be enjoyed and then melt away in spring, to be rebuilt differently the next winter. She describes weeks of traveling in darkness, when a gray light appears around noon only to disappear moments later, of dawn and dusk occurring at the same time on the southern horizon, and the thrill of sunlight returning for a brief time around noon in late January, and the hope in lengthening days. She also relates her dogsled journey over the Finmark Plateau and how that trip was less than the fun described in the brochure. Things aren’t always as easy as they seem. And how adventures and misadventures brought on the inner journey of moving on with her life and discovering the real lives of the people in those regions.
That’s where the real questions enter in Parts II and III on subsequent visits. When we travel, do we want the Made-in-China stereotype souvenirs, or do we want to experience “real life”? Do we want only romanticized history, or the way people adapt to the “modern” world and blend it with their culture? Do we truly respect the culture, history, and rights of indigenous peoples all over the world? Or our version of it? The author makes deep comparisons between the adventures of her first visit, what she later dove into. and challenges us to do the same.
There is much to enjoy as well as ponder in Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, whether one reads this book first and decides to learn more by reading her other works, or, as this reviewer did, discover the reasons behind her subsequent works.
The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Sápmi
By Barbara Sjoholm
University of Minnesota Press, 2023 (Counter Point Press 2007)