EAST by Edith Pattou
Magic Carpet Books, 2003, 494 pages, 0-15-204563-5, Mass Market Paperback, $7.95
Like most of you, I have a mountainous stack of books that I’m always meaning to read, but I somehow never get around to it. For a long time, East was one of the books in that stack. It has a lot of the qualities that I look for in a book. One, it has lovely cover art, which is something I’m a sucker for, even though I’m pretty sure it’s a mortal sin to judge books thusly. Two, it’s a fairy tale redux, a mix between East of the Sun West of the Moon and Cupid and Psyche, both of which are stories I love. Still, it sat moldering in my to read pile until a few weeks ago when I picked up a copy at a used bookstore and decided it was high time I read it.
I’m glad that I did, and not just because it makes my mountain that much smaller. East was interesting, both in terms of plot and technique. The story has multiple first person narrative voices, but it mainly follows Rose, an adventurous girl who terrifies her superstitious mother and worries her more reasonable father and brother. Her wanderings bring her to the attention of a massive white bear. The bear eventually bargains for her help in exchange for prosperity for her desperately poor family. This help turns out to be a bit different than what Rose is expecting, and, after the girl takes some bad advice from her mother, requires a journey to the ends of the Earth.
Rose is a likeable heroine and a well-rounded character. I particularly appreciate the way Pattou balances her personality between a loving daughter and sister who’s willing to be a potential martyr for her family and a resourceful individual with personal agency. The main conflict of the story arises as a direct result of Rose’s actions, and she’s the one who takes steps to fix it. It’s Rose who propels her own journey, which I like. With female-centered fantasy it’s important that the center holds. Here, Pattou’s Rose does so admirably.
The other main narrators, Rose’s Father and brother, Neddy, are also likeable characters. I’m usually wary of books that use multiple narrators, but it was done well here without veering in tone or convoluting events. In particular, I enjoyed the inclusion of the Father’s voice. Often in fairy tales, you don’t get the perspective of the man who allows his wife to run wild and turn his children into swans or generally treat them like dirt. His character type is usually defined by a hovering, but completely ineffectual, benevolence. In East, the Father plays an active role. He initially goes along with his wife’s irrational demands about naming her children for every point of the compass, except for the North, but he starts to disagree with her when her irrationality deepens later in the story. He’s also not willing to let his daughter sacrifice herself for his sake.
Pattou spends a lot of time with the Father, and the reader benefits from getting to know him better. I enjoyed that he was a map-maker, and I liked how Pattou treated this with as much weight as all of the magical goings-on in Rose’s portion of the story. These realistic elements helped keep the story grounded, which made the book an even more satisfying read.
Neddy’s narration has a similar effect on the story. He’s dutiful, conscientious, and stays home to help his family, holding off his own dreams of scholarship until late in the book. He’s the child Rose’s mother wishes she had been.
Despite this, Neddy’s the family member closest to Rose. They seem like opposites, but Pattou doesn’t let Neddy’s character become a scold or a sternly discouraging brother figure. Instead, he’s the one most able to empathize with her and, though he doesn’t support her initial desire to go with the White Bear, he comes around. Neddy doesn’t try to hold Rose back, and he trusts her to make her own way. His narration does an excellent job of showcasing a healthy family relationship wherein one person worries about the other but doesn’t selfishly try to make them into who he wants them to be.
The family saga aspect of East was strengthened by having Father and Neddy’s voices. Allowing them to tell the family story in addition to Rose’s narration was easily the most interesting part of a story that would otherwise feel like standard fantasy fare. Pattou’s emphasis on personal relationships makes East more emotionally resonant.
I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t get too much into the magical elements of the story, but know that they were well done. The cast of supporting characters, like Thor and Tuki, were also interesting and added to the story through their friendships with Rose and how they each helped her achieve her goals. And I’ll admit that I found the villain surprisingly sympathetic despite, you know, all the villainy.
To sum it up, East was a fast, enjoyable read that does some interesting things with the traditional fairy tale, such as including likeable male characters who are not love interests and who let the heroine exhibit recognizably human behavior. All in all, it’s a good book with which to spend an afternoon.