Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – “The Dead”