The Faraway Nearby Book Club: Tears and the Ice Queen

Dinner at my house is a race to the finish. Participants have trained over many years to get in, get done, get out. So when my sons pushed back their chairs the other night not to leave the table but to stretch their legs, sit back and talk a while, I had the good sense to push back my own and stretch out the conversation.

Sometime during the hour of stories and jokes and cultural analysis that followed, mention was made of the three times in my life (known to them) that I had cried. All three times, according to their accounting, it was done in connection with one of my sons, a singular point of pride for both of them—one pleased with himself for never having made me cry, and the other for having found a way to do so.

I assured them that despite their particular skills, duly noted, there had surely been other times. Just not often in their company. For reasons which are legion (and which we will not list here) my heart has never been embroidered onto the cuff of my sleeve; rather, my emotions are most often held more closely to my chest.

That isn’t to say I know nothing of the cathartic and healing power of tears, mind you. Otherwise, when Rebecca Solnit wove the plot of The Snow Queen into The Faraway Nearby, its poignancy would have gone right over my dry-eyed head.

As the story goes, sprites, or trolls, get their hands on an enchanted mirror which shows them “their own ugly view of the world.” They take the mirror up into the heavens, and clumsily drop it to earth, where it shatters and embeds itself in the people in its path. A young boy named Kai, best friend of a young girl named Gerda, was one of those in its path, taking shards of glass in his eye and his heart, causing both to grow cold and, he, putting it mildly, unkind. He later found himself wrapped in the warm fur of the Ice Queen in what Solnit describes as a “terrifying seduction.” In the fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen writes

She kissed him on the forehead. It was colder than ice; it went right to his heart, which was already half ice. He felt as if he would die, but only for a moment, and then he felt fine.

Gerda, meanwhile, goes on a long journey in search of her missing friend. She is waylaid by an old woman with her share of conjuring chops (though she wasn’t “a wicked witch; she conjured only for her own amusement”). She enchants her garden to keep Gerda from remembering home and her quest to find Kai, making her rose bushes bury themselves in the ground. Gerda loses her sense of time, letting seasons pass until one day she does remember the roses and begins to weep. Her tears go into the ground, and the rosebushes spring up around her, bringing back to mind her home, her friend, and her mission to find him.

Gerda’s tears break the enchantment that has left her comfortable enough, but immobilized there in the old woman’s garden. “Tears are her magic,” Solnit writes. “The roses wake her up to her task.” (The Faraway Nearby, p. 171)

Later, after helpful encounters with crows and royalty and robbers, a woman from Finland and another from Lapland, she makes her way to the Ice Queen’s palace and finds Kai playing the “Ice Game of Reason.” Andersen writes that upon her arrival, Gerda ran to embrace Kai but he “sat quite still, stiff and cold. Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there. Then Kai burst into tears, and he wept so that the splinter of glass swam out of his eye.”

Before Gerda reached the queen’s palace, she and the reindeer with whom she traveled sought assistance from a Finnish woman. As she was leaving, the reindeer asked if there wasn’t anything the woman could do for the girl. “I can’t give her any greater power than she already has. Don’t you see how great it is? Don’t you see how people and animals, want to serve her, how she has come so far in the world in her bare feet?” (p. 169)

The girl had all the power she needed, and all the power that Kai needed from her. It wasn’t reason that would save Kai, as Solnit observes, nor was it the old woman’s enchantment. “It’s not reason or pattern but emotion that will free him, in the form of more tears from Gerda, whose grief makes him remember, so that he weeps out the speck of glass and is himself again.” (p. 170)

Her tears made roses bloom from the ground, and her tears melted the heart of a boy who’d turned to ice.

Gerda’s free-flowing tears were her magic. There was no greater power than what she already had.


Disney’s Frozen is loosely based on Andersen’s tale, The Snow Queen. Those who are fans of one or the other might really enjoy this video edited by Sonia Joie. (Click the full screen icon for best viewing, after you click the Play Arrow.)

We’re reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby together. This week we read chapters 8-9. What themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.

We’d love for you to join us again next week for chapters 10-13. (Note a small change in the reading schedule to include Chapter 10 in next week’s discussion. Feel free to share from it here this week as well, if you wish.)

Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Bodies, Betrayal and Love (Chapters 5-7)
Wednesday, March 5: Tears and the Ice Queen (Chapters 8-9)
Wednesday, March 12: Chapters 10-13


Photo by Frederic Rivollier. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by L. Willingham Lindquist.

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  1. Vicki Addesso says

    So loving this book – but either I am very busy or a slow reader or both, because I am a bit behind…hoping to have time to read & catch up & become part of the discussion in the next few days…such a lovely, wonderful, beautifully written book,
    I cannot rush, must savor every word, reread passages, let the ideas play in my mind…

    • says

      That’s one of the hard things about reading together, is everyone reads on a different schedule. Don’t worry about it though. Enjoy it at your own pace and pop in to the conversation whenever you feel like it. :)

    • says

      It’s Solnit, I think. Her writing makes you want to take it slow. And… why rush?

      This Ice Queen story is just so good. We all know a little about being frozen, I guess… one way or another… and the story just digs into the heart of that so poignantly. And we can’t wait for the melting.

  2. Sheila Dailie says

    Yes, I know that I can relate to the frozen state of the Snow Queen. And though emotion is scary, it does its work in thawing us.

    As an amateur seamstress, I enjoyed the picture of how we are all connected by many threads. (pg. 139) Then Solnit reminds us of the fairy tales that require spinning whatever is around us for survival. But after surviving, what is to become of those skills, the spider webs, the straw and the nettles? The story continues….

    • says

      Great question. What is to become of the skills we once required to survive, when they are no longer needed in their original context.

      All part of transformation.

      Ice, once melted, can be used for watering, for drinking, for cleaning.

      • Sheila Dailie says

        Hmmm. Another thread of thought!

        Solnit was right—the threads continue to extend outward and interweave.

    • says

      Sheila, what a fascinating question. I think Maureen Doallas could write a whole series of poems on these defunct items. (And I’m guessing Tania Runyan could write some insightful, humorous, and arresting flash fiction and Anthony Connolly some evocative creative nonfiction). Hmmmm. :)

  3. says

    I’m so glad you retold the fairytale because, as usual, Disney screwed it up (although I did love “Frozen” for other reasons). As a girl, I had an old copy of my mom’s collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories and read it often.

    • says

      Hadn’t ever heard the story, Megan. I find this, as an adult, my known repertoire of fairy tales was quite slim. As I’ve read Solnit, I’ve gone back to the originals and read them through.

      Powerfully insightful, that Hans Christian Andersen. :)

  4. says

    Solnit’s “sojourn” in Iceland is like a fairy tale. She travels with her tears (her mother, her illness), like Gerda, to release herself from the numbness that accompanies her great pain. I like what she says on pp. 176-177 about change–how it is sometimes in movies and novels portrayed as a quick fix, but in real life a healing change is hard won, often requiring a long journey to the faraway. There is a lot of wisdom in The Faraway Nearby, but it is certainly not easy reading. It’s so dense with stories, the threads, that she weaves together into quite an intricate pattern. I am lucky to be here in the book club re-reading. I read it quite quickly this past December. I read it quickly because I needed to be reading and I read fast by nature, but I am glad to be rereading in a context where I am prompted by our book group leader to write down some of my reactions. Thank you!

    • says

      Elizabeth, I’m on my second time through as well, which is unusual for me — most of the time with our book clubs, I’m getting my first read along with everyone else. I grateful for having read it first in this case, so I have a sense of where things are going, and have had months to let some of the themes simmer.

      I so appreciated that comment you reference about slow changes as well. It’s one I’d written down. Dropping it here for others who may be looking in and not reading the book, because it’s such a powerful statement:

      “Even earthquakes are the consequence of tensions built up over long spans of time, imperceptibly, incrementally. You don’t notice the buildup, just the release. You see a sick person, an old person, a dying person, the sight sinks in, and somewhere down the road you change your life. In movies and novels, people change suddenly and permanently, which is convenient and dramatic but not much like life, where you gain distance on something, relapse, resolve, try again, and move along in stops, starts, and stutters. Change is mostly slow.”

      Thanks so much for being a part of our discussion here. :)

      • says

        Another aspect of Solnit’s work that I admire is how deeply she embeds her personal story within a web of other stories. I don’t think she is a fan of the confessional memoir (I don’t mean this as a pejorative statement, just that she seems to want to justify her story by setting it alongside the so many others that she tells us). That is not her style. Her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, for example, is dense with carefully researched historical material. What makes this book especially interesting to me is that it is a kind of research memoir–she offers her story as a part of her “research” on stories in general. It is not really a memoir, nor is it a history of stories. A wonderful hybrid!

        • says

          This is one of the things that makes her writing so rich, is the way she weaves these things together. She is living proof of the need for writers to *read* — though I’m sure she did a fair amount of research for the book, it’s also apparent she also has a wealth of knowledge tucked back that she draws on in her stories.

  5. says

    I marked that same passage too.

    It’s little things from that chapter that I keep thinking about. One, the library of water. How strange — here are glass cylinders of melted ice from near and far. Not museum of, but library of. How would I read the waters if I visited it? And she’s sleeping on the floor below that water. And one of the columns of melted glacier is from the same town where there was a volcanic eruption a few years ago. When I read the name of that town I hear a former coworker confidently pronouncing it, a young woman who’d learned a Scandinavian language at the Concordia language camps in Minnesota.

    Also, her trip out on the ferry the day it was free, when no one talked to her or looked at her. Not even when she ate lunch at the same table as some of the locals. How cold.

    Also, at the very end of the chapter, when she’s on a sightseeing boat and it’s brought up a catch of sea animals that some of the other boaters immediately turn into seafood, and she flings one large starfish back into the sea.

    Those are the things I keep thinking about. But I have located the hardback of Andersen’s fairy tales that my youngest uncle gave me when I was 4. One book leads to another.


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