When I was 14, I took my massive volume of Andersen’s fairy tales and challenged myself to read it from beginning to end. By the time I reached “The Snow Queen,” I had read over 20 tales and was beginning to grow tired of them, but this one had a magic of its own. No wonder it inspired so many other stories such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Disney’s Frozen. Not the least among these is Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee.
Eleven-year-old Ophelia does not consider herself brave, but she is curious. So when her father accepts a position at an ancient museum in a country where it always snows, Ophelia begins to explore. As she wanders through the labyrinth of exhibits, she discovers a boy locked in one of the rooms. A prisoner of the terrible Snow Queen, he has been waiting for Ophelia for over three hundred years. The Snow Queen is none other than the museum curator. It is the boy’s quest to find the one who will be able to defeat her, and he needs Ophelia’s help.
The trouble is that Ophelia does not believe in magic. Magic is wild and frightening and cannot be scientifically classified. Yet if she doesn’t help him, the Snow Queen will triumph, and the world will end.
And so begins a desperate adventure. Foxlee’s writing is detailed and intricate, like a tapestry; we can see and smell and touch everything that Ophelia does. These details are remembered and repeated throughout the story. Far from tedious, the repetition becomes enchanting, almost soothing, like a litany.1 Coupled with this is the ticking of the Wintertide clock, which creates a sense of time and mounting urgency. It is counting down to the end of the world.
Like time, the shadow of death is ever present. The boy’s past is filled with loss, and Ophelia’s mother died not long before the story begins. She is left to cope by herself as her father and sister struggle with their own grief. If she fails to help the boy, Ophelia will lose them as well, and she, too, is threatened by terrible monsters and deadly cold. But there is hope, for Ophelia is not entirely alone, and she is braver than she knows.
This emphasis on death (especially the death of a parent) could cause anxiety for young or sensitive readers, as could the elements of darkness, which border on horror. For example, like the witches of classic tales, the Snow Queen preys on innocent children. She lures young girls into her “machine,” extracting their life force and reducing them to miserable ghosts. Horrible as this is, Foxlee does not include it for mere sensational value; rather it is an accurate portrayal of the nature of evil. Still, I find the publisher’s recommendation for ages 8 to 12 a bit young.
Be that as it may, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a fantasy masterpiece. Karen Foxlee has crafted a haunting story in the spirit of the old tales. I will never forget the suspense, the longing, or the against-all-odds victory. Here is a world of secret corridors and sparkling ice; a world where good conquers evil, where compassion is stronger than cruelty, where “the last will be first, and the first last.”2 I think Hans Christian Andersen would have approved.
- This is especially true of the audiobook version, skillfully narrated by Jane Entwistle. Foxlee’s repetition is complemented by Entwistle’s pacing, which allows the listener to absorb each detail.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 20:16, RSV
First image credit to amazon.ca
Second image: illustration of the Snow Queen by Isabelle Brent from Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Neil Philip.