The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
If ever a place and time begged for fairytales, it’s mid-evil Northern Russia. In The Bear and the Nightingale, American author Katherine Arden makes use of both retelling a very old tale. The result is stunning.
“Peter Vladimirovich,” Arden writes, “was a great lord: a boyer, with rich lands and many men to do his bidding.”
His beloved wife, Marina, is very ill but determined to carry her last child to term, maternal instinct telling her that this child will inherit the talents of her grandmother, a woman who can see into the future and communicate with animals.
The beauty of the story after the birth of Vasilisa, or Vasya as her family calls her, is the description of her rearing, the frazzled efforts of her loving family to keep track of her meanderings and protect the headstrong girl. And oh! the winters––frostbite, chilblains, hunger as winter stores diminish, the rub of snow beneath sodden woolen boots, and window openings set with blocks of ice to keep out the cold wind. Eventually, worse challenges appear. An evil demon and a misguided priest endanger Vasya and her village, forcing her to gather her courage and confront the danger from the back of a mighty and magical stallion.
Texas born Arden’s knowledge of Russian folklore pays off in the authentic feel of the novel. She lived in Russia for a time and studied Russian and French literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. It’s always fun to analyze a writer and try to figure out the secret to their success. There are plenty of clues that she’s not so very unlike Vasya: intelligent, creative, independent, and now, successful.
Del Ray, an imprint of Random House
ISBN: 9781101885949 (e-book)
Katherine Arden’s use of descriptive sentences shines, as in this excerpt:
It was late winter in Northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
In that one paragraph, we are introduced to clues about the era (porridge, roasted meats, chilblains, fasting). We can guess that many of Pyotr’s household are children, and that Dunya is not only the storyteller, but likely beloved. A picture forms in our minds of “sullen” weather, sniffling children with empty stomachs—and yet their considerable discomfort doesn’t lessen their expectation of enjoying a good story. I don't know about you, but I was intrigued.