Up until last week, Moontrug thought she only had space in her heart for three bears: the gloriously greedy Winnie the Pooh, the wonderfully fierce Iorek Byrnison and, of course, her ever-faithful Spencer Bear. And then alone came Jackie Morris’ book, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and with it, a very different bear: ‘In an iridescent sparkle of frosted light he appeared, a huge white bear, shifting and shimmering into solid form. Frost stars clung to his thick pelt. He shook himself and they danced around him like an echo of the Northern Lights.’
Having been bowled over by the magic of Jackie Morris’ Snow Leopard recently (read the review here), Moontrug couldn’t wait to start reading East of the Sun, West of the Moon. And from the very first pages, Morris’ magic stirs, conjuring with it the very essence of story-telling, of fairytales spun from northern lands. East of the Sun, West of the Moon tells the story of a magical bear who arrives one morning on the doorstep of a young girl’s house. And from the moment she sees him, she knows the bear has come for her. ‘How many times had she dreamt of him, of riding his back, sleeping, wrapped safe in his paws, walking beside him? … Now he was here, as if spelled from her dreams.’ It is the beginning of an extraordinary journey for the girl. First to the bear’s secret palace in the faraway mountains, where she is treated so courteously, but where she experiences the bear’s unfathomable sadness, and a deep mystery. As the bear’s secret unravels, another journey unfolds… a long and desperate journey, that takes the girl to the homes of the four Winds and beyond, to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
The illustrations are staggeringly beautiful and evocative and the words themselves seem imbued with a sort of elemental power, a magic born when Time first dawned or Earth began to turn. Indeed the bear is both magical, a wild being from a mysterious, faraway land, and absolutely real. His tears are ‘frozen diamonds’ and he moves ‘like a shimmer, like a whisper.’ But what makes him so engaging is the promise he makes to the young girl: ‘I could wait a thousand years and not forget you. I would travel to the ends of the earth to find you.’
And there’s another thing that won Moontrug over about this secretive bear. He can fly. And in Moontrug’s best dreams she is flying through the night on the wings of an eagle or on the back of a snow leopard. And Morris does ‘flying’ beautifully. The words themselves seem to float off in the page into the pearly sky of stars: ‘Then they were flying across the night sky on a silver bridge of stars, and her heart and soul lifted for the joy and beauty of it all. High in the sky, the bone-white moon shone down on the girl, the bear and the sea of cloud.’
Though Morris draws on an old fairytale, there is a difference in her telling. When the reader thinks her story is going in one direction, actually it is moving in quite another. Just as the woman tells Berneen: ‘Be careful what you wish for. Seldom when our wishes come true, do we find that we have what we truly desired. Wishes have ways of twisting themselves, or turning unexpected corners.’ Which is why, alongside the bear, we have the wind: wild, fierce and free.
Morris describes the immense power and unpredictability of the wind and yet there is a tenderness at its core: ‘She had often dreamed of flying, but now she moved across the face of the earth in the arms of the East Wind. At the head of the wind there was a place of great stillness. She looked down, and below it seemed that the earth turned for her and her alone.’ East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a story of bravery and love, of growing up and letting go – as relevant for grown ups as it is for children. And though the wind may blow, the Troll Queen may roar and the bear may weep, there is a stillness at its heart, and books like that, amidst the rush and chaos of our busy lives, deserve a look in. Especially this one.