Three on a Theme: Frost Fairs Books
Here in southern England, we’ve just had a couple of weeks of hard frost. The local canal froze over for a time; the other day when I thought it had all thawed, a pair of mallard ducks surprised me by appearing to walk on water. In previous centuries, the entire Thames has been known to freeze through central London. (I’d like to revisit Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for a 17th-century scene of that.) This thematic trio of a children’s book, a historical novel, and a poetry collection came together rather by accident: I already had the poetry collection on my shelf, then saw frost fairs referenced in the blurb of the novel, and later spotted the third book while shelving in the children’s section of the library.
A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll (2021)
Maya’s mum is visiting family in India; Maya and her dad and sister have just settled Gran into a clinical care home. Christmas is coming, and Gran handed out peculiarly mismatched presents: Maya’s older sister got a lovely brooch, while her own present was a weird brick-shaped brown object Gran says belonged to “Edmund”. Now the family is in a taxi home, crossing London Bridge, when Maya notices snow falling faster than seems possible and finds herself on a busy street of horse-drawn carriages, overlooking booths and hordes of people on the frozen river.
A sickly little boy named Eddie is her tour guide to the games, rides and snacks on offer here in 1788, but there’s a man around who wants to keep him from enjoying the fair. Maya hopes to help Eddie, and Gran, all while figuring out what the gift parcel means. A low page count meant this felt pretty thin, with everything wrapped up too soon. The problem, really, was that – believe it or not – this isn’t the first middle-grade time-slip historical fantasy novel about frost fairs that I’ve read; the other, Frost by Holly Webb, was better. Sam Usher’s Quentin Blake-like illustrations are a bonus, though. (Public library)
The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner (2022)
This has been catalogued as science fiction by my library system, but I’d be more likely to describe it as historical fiction with a touch of magic realism, similar to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock or Things in Jars. I loved the way the action is bookended by the frost fairs of 1789 and 1814. There’s a whiff of the fairy tale in the setup: when we meet Neva, she’s a little girl whose parents operate one of the fair’s attractions, a chess-playing bear. She knows, like no one else seems to, that the ice is shifting and it’s not safe to stay by the Thames. When the predicted tragedy comes, she’s left an orphan and adopted by Victor Friezland, a clockmaker who shares her Russian heritage. He lives in a wonderfully peculiar house made out of ship parts and, between him, Neva, the housekeeper Elise, and other servants, friends and neighbours, they form a delightful makeshift family.
Neva predicts the weather faultlessly, even years ahead. It’s somewhere between synaesthetic and mystical, this ability to hear the ice speaking and see what the clouds hold. While others in their London circle engage in early meteorological prediction, her talent is different. Victor decides to harness it as an attraction, developing “The Weather Woman” as first an automaton and then a magic lantern show, both with Neva behind the scenes giving unerring forecasts. At the same time, Neva brings her childhood imaginary friend to life, dressing in men’s clothing and appearing as Victor’s business partner, Eugene Jonas, in public.
These various disguises are presented as the only way that a woman could be taken seriously in the early 19th century. Gardner is careful to note that Neva does not believe she is, or seek to become, a man; “She thinks she’s been born into the wrong time, not necessarily the wrong sex. As for her mind, that belongs to a different world altogether.” (Whereas there is a trans character and a couple of queer ones; it would also have been interesting for Gardner to take further the male lead’s attraction to Eugene Jonas.) From her early teens on, she’s declared that she doesn’t intend to marry or have children, but in what I suspect is a trope of romance fiction, she changes her tune when she meets the right man. This was slightly disappointing, yet just one of several satisfying matches made over the course of this rollicking story.
London charms here despite its Dickensian (avant la lettre) grime – mudlarks and body snatchers, gambling and trickery, gloomy pubs and shipwrecks, weaselly lawyers and high-society soirees. The plot moves quickly and holds a lot of surprises and diverting secondary characters. While the novel could have done with some trimming – something I’d probably say about the majority of 450-pagers – I remained hooked and found it fun and racy. You’ll want to stick around for a terrific late set-piece on the ice. Gardner had a career in theatre costume design before writing children’s books. I’ll also try her teen novel, I, Coriander. (Public library)
[Two potential anachronisms: “Hold your horses” (p. 202) and calling someone “a card” (p. 209) – both slang uses that more likely date from the 1830s or 1840s.]
The Frost Fairs by John McCullough (2010)
I knew McCullough’s name from his superb 2019 collection Reckless Paper Birds, which was shortlisted for a Costa Prize. This was his debut collection, for which he won a Polari Prize. Appropriately, one poem, “Georgie, Belladonna, Sid,” is crammed full of “Polari words” – “the English homosexual and theatrical slang prevalent in the early to mid 20th century.” The book leans heavily on historical scenes and seaside scenery. “The Other Side of Winter” is the source of the title and the cover image:
Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about
On islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch—the printing press nuzzling
the swings—then part, slip quietly under.
I also liked the wordplay of “The Dictionary Man,” the alliteration and English summer setting of “Miss Fothergill Observes a Snail,” and the sibilance versus jarringly violent imagery of “Severance.” However, it was hard to detect links that would create overall cohesion in the book. (Purchased directly from Salt Publishing)
Farewell to Winter with Some Snowy and Icy Reads
Although we got plenty of cold, damp weather and gray skies, it feels like we were cheated out of winter in my part of England this year. We had just one snow flurry on the 27th of February; that will have to suffice as my only taste of proper winter for the year. Not to worry, though: I’ve been getting my fix of snow and ice through my reading, starting with two animal tales and moving on to a few travel and adventure books.
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico (1941)
Philip Rhayader is a lonely bird artist on the Essex marshes by an abandoned lighthouse. “His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things. He was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty.” One day a little girl, Fritha, brings him an injured snow goose and he puts a splint on its wing. The recovered bird becomes a friend to them both, coming back each year to spend time at Philip’s makeshift bird sanctuary. As Fritha grows into a young woman, she and Philip fall in love (slightly creepy), only for him to leave to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk. This is a melancholy and in some ways predictable little story. It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940 and became a book the following year. I read a lovely version illustrated by Angela Barrett. It’s the second of Gallico’s animal fables I’ve read; I slightly preferred The Small Miracle.
The Snow Cat by Holly Webb (2016)
My second from Holly Webb, and while I enjoyed it a lot, if not quite as much as Frost, I probably don’t need to read any more by her now because these two were so similar as to reveal a clear formula: a young girl of about nine years old who plays alone (because she’s an only child or left out of her siblings’ games) goes for an outdoor adventure and meets a cute animal who leads her back into the past. For a time it’s unclear whether she’s dreaming or really experiencing the history, but at the end there’s some physical token that proves she has been time travelling.
In this case, Bel goes to play in the snowy garden of her grandmother’s retirement complex and meets a white cat named Snow who belongs to Charlotte, the daughter of the family who owned this manor house 150 years ago. Bel has to protect Snow from a threatening dog so the cat can be brought in to visit Charlotte’s sister Lucy, who lies ill with influenza. For me the Victorian setting wasn’t quite as authentic or interesting as the seventeenth-century frost fair was in Frost, but I can see how it’s a good way of introducing kids to what was different in the past: everything from clothing and speech to the severity of illness.
The Snow Tourist by Charlie English (2008)
“A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall” reads the subtitle on the cover. English set out from his home in London for two years of off-and-on travel in snowy places, everywhere from Greenland to Washington State. In Jericho, Vermont, he learns about Wilson Bentley, an amateur scientist who was the first to document snowflake shapes through microscope photographs. In upstate New York, he’s nearly stranded during the Blizzard of 2006. He goes skiing in France and learns about the deadliest avalanches – Britain’s worst was in Lewes in 1836. In Scotland’s Cairngorms, he learns how those who work in the ski industry are preparing for the 60–80% reduction of snow predicted for this century. An appendix dubbed “A Snow Handbook” gives some technical information on how snow forms, what the different crystal shapes are called, and how to build an igloo, along with whimsical lists of 10 snow stories (I’ve read six), 10 snowy films, etc.
I found all of the science and history interesting, but especially liked a chapter on depictions of snow in art, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow. The author also subtly threads in his own story, noting that this quest probably began with the 1960s photograph of himself on skis at a snowy Austrian resort that his father gave him a few weeks before he committed suicide. Twelve years later, it feels like this book doesn’t go far enough in cautioning about all that will be lost with climate change. I was left with the sense that nature is majestic and unpredictable, and we pay the price for not respecting it.
[Breaking from alphabetical order to include this one as a footnote to the previous book.]
The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (2018)
This has a very similar format and scope to The Snow Tourist, with Campbell ranging from Greenland and continental Europe to the USA in her search for the science and stories of ice. For English’s chapter on skiing, substitute a section on ice skating. I only skimmed this one because – in what I’m going to put down to a case of reader–writer mismatch – I started it three times between November 2018 and now and could never get further than page 60. See these reviews from Laura and Liz for more enthusiasm.
My thanks to Scribner UK for the free copy for review.
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen (1994)
Paulsen’s name was familiar to me from his children’s books – a tomboy, I spent my childhood fascinated by Native American culture, survival skills and animals, and Hatchet was one of my favorite novels. I had no idea he had written books for adults, including this travelogue of competing in the Iditarod sled dog race across the frozen Alaska wilderness. Nearly half the book is devoted to his preparations, before he ever gets to Alaska. He lived in Minnesota and took time assembling what he thought of as a perfect team of dogs, from reliable Cookie, his lead dog, to Devil, whose name says it all. He even starts sleeping in the kennel with the dogs to be fully in tune with them.
The travails of his long trial runs with the dogs – the sled flipping over, having to walk miles after losing control of the dogs, being sprayed in the face by multiple skunks – sound bad enough, but once the Iditarod begins the misery ramps up. The course is nearly 1200 miles, over 17 days. It’s impossible to stay warm or get enough food, and a lack of sleep leads to hallucinations. At one point he nearly goes through thin ice. At another he’s run down by a moose. He also watches in horror as a fellow contestant kicks a dog to death.
Paulsen concludes that you would have to be insane to run the Iditarod, and there’s an appropriately feverish intensity running through the book. The way he describes the bleak beauty of the landscape, you can see how attractive and forbidding it was all at the same time. This is just the kind of adventurous armchair traveling I love (see also This Cold Heaven) – someone else did this, so now I don’t have to!
(Note: The author completed two races and was training for his third when a diagnosis of coronary heart disease ended his Iditarod career in his mid-forties. More than the obsession, more than the competition, he knows that he’ll miss the constant company of dogs. In fact, his last line is “How can it be to live without the dogs?”)
See also these recent releases:
- Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, an avalanche novel set in the Italian Alps
- Two nonfiction books entitled Wintering: Katherine May’s is about depression and Stephen Rutt’s is about geese
And a snowy passage from Winter Journal by Paul Auster:
Snow, so much snow these past days and weeks that fifty-six inches have fallen on New York in less than a month. Eight storms, nine storms, you have lost track by now, and all through January the song heard most often in Brooklyn has been the street music made by shovels scraping against sidewalks and thick patches of ice. Intemperate cold (three degrees one morning), drizzles and mizzles, mist and slush, ever-aggressive winds, but most of all the snow, which will not melt, and as one storm falls on top of another, the bushes and trees in your back garden are all wearing ever-longer and heavier beards of snow. Yes, it seems to have turned into one of those winters, but in spite of the cold and discomfort and your useless longing for spring, you can’t help admiring the vigor of these meteorological dramas, and you continue to look at the falling snow with the same awe you felt when you were a boy.