The Palace of the Snow Queen by Barbara Sjoholm (thoughts)
The Palace of the Snow Queen by Barbara Sjoholm is a travelogue centering around ‘Lapland’ (aka northern Scandinavia) in the winter and on the pure travel level it succeeds wonderfully. Sjoholm has a gift for conjuring up places, and I felt like I was in the dark, breathing that cold air alongside her. As someone who adores winter and currently lives in a subtropical climate, I’m grateful to Sjoholm simply for that. She’s also talented at sketching little scenes, and the humour with which she describes a weeklong dog sledding trip across the tundra in January had me reading sections out loud to my mom while her descriptions of the individuals she meets, both natives and tourists, were both witty and gentle. With her feel for both landscapes and people, she’s clearly an excellent travel writer and The Palace of the Snow Queen would have been excellent if it had been nothing more.
But, for me at least, the real magic of the book is that it is more. It tells of three separate trips Sjoholm makes over a period of several years, and it’s fascinating to watch as her relationship with the region, and thus the tone of the book, evolves. During her first trip, she’s in the throes of depression due to ending things with a partner she’d expected to have for life. At the same time, she’s clearly enchanted with the far north and its winter magic: the mix of wonder and sadness creates a lovely elegiac tone. On her return trips, she’s no longer so depressed and also no longer content with the surface of Lapland. Thanks to her language skills (she’s fluent in Norwegian, which also allows her a fair amount of Swedish communication) she can delve into local life and she soon becomes interested in the Sami, who are the indigenous minority native to Lapland. They face many challenges, from the political (trying to hold on to land rights in the face of natural resources and expanding tourism) to the cultural (having to navigate a modern identity when outsiders, including tourists, prefer the romance of their ‘primitive’ historical lifestyle). Sjoholm dives into the issues, meeting people from all sides, while examining her own inner biases and tourist status. In the end, I think she succeeds in rising above a sentimental view her surroundings and creating a more honest portrait of Lapland itself and Sami culture both past and present.
I loved The Palace of the Snow Queen not only for its ability to bring me to a fascinating place but also for Sjoholm’s willingness to delve deeper than the simple surface of things. In doing so, she’s created a book that will not only entrance armchair travellers but also challenge readers to resist the urge to romanticise the Other they encounter when meeting those of a different culture, whether at home or travelling abroad. In case you can’t guess, I highly recommend this and can’t wait to read more by Sjoholm!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Jenny by Sigrid Undset : in this novel, Jenny has her own life-changing expat experience; in her case she travels from her native Norway to Italy. And of course it’s the turn of the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth! I think it’d be a neat kind of mirror image to Sjoholm’s experiences.
- Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto : while Guillermoprieto (a Mexican journalist) moves to Rio de Janeiro rather than visiting a few times, Samba is another excellent ‘travelogue’ that combines the personal and political, with an eye to the disenfranchised.
- Touch by Alexi Zentner : a cold novel with a fairy tale feel to it, set in the Canadian far north rather than Scandinavian. It has a wonderfully strong sense of place and will transport readers, leaving them shivering. I debated between this and another fairy tale-esque, atmospheric debut novel, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Both would work but Zentner seems less well-known!
- The Far Traveller by Nancy Marie Brown : another travelogue by an American woman, this one is about Iceland rather than Lapland and focuses on history rather than the present-day. It’s also excellently written and the way Brown weaves together her own experiences (she volunteers on an archaeological dig) with the life of an extraordinary medieval Icelandic woman makes for a glorious reading experience. I’ve been wanting to read her other Icelandic travelogue, A Good Horse Has No Colour, ever since (but my library doesn’t have it; in fact, no library in Texas does).
- Cold by Bill Streever : Streever travels around the world meditating on the concept of ‘cold’: this one is for all the winter fans. I didn’t formally review it, but I talk about it in the post I linked to, which is a bookish list I did Nancy Pearl style with the theme of cold. In fact, any of the books on that list could have been here too, so I’m going to cheat and suggest you check out the whole post! ;)