|The Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton
Published by Andersen in 2011
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Balloon, Boat, Magical Animal
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Buy from Amazon UK
Lettie Peppercorn lives in a house on stilts near the wind-swept coast of Albion, with no one to talk to but Periwinkle the pigeon. Her days are filled with floor-sweeping, bed-making and soup-stirring. Her nights are filled with dreams of her mother, who vanished long ago. Nothing incredible has ever happened to Lettie, until one winter's night - the night the Snow Merchant comes.
He claims to be an alchemist - the greatest that ever lived - and in a mahogany suitcase, he carries his newest invention. It is an invention that will change Lettie's life - and the world - forever. It is an invention called snow.
The Snow Merchant is a fantasy filled with family secrets, magical transformations and wild adventure. Join Lettie on her journey to uncover the true meaning of snow, family and friendship.
Verdict: I liked it but I’m waiting to see what my kid thinks.
Why would I give a verdict like that on a book? Well, the thing is that the book is aimed squarely at the ‘older child’ bracket, 9-12 years.
Normally, if an adult reads a book like that and enjoys it, it’s a good thing. This one is filled with little twists and surprises and nicely written. But I know my daughter. The Snow Merchant has a few edges that could disturb her and cause her to reject it. It all depends on her level of maturity and sensitivities at the time.
But first, the travel!!
This book says some beautiful things about travel, right after my own heart. It’s the story of a quest and a transition, from a sedentary to a wandering lifestyle. I think that’s why I fell in love with it. Let me try to do a round-up of some of the passages which most struck me:
| At the beginning, when Lettie is unable to leave her house… I so understand how she feels – ‘She loved the Wind, she envied it: it travelled the world; it went wherever it wanted, while she was stuck inside, held prisoner by her job and Ma’s last message.‘ ==== ‘She fell quiet and gazed out of the window, to the town huddled against the Wind. A place of brine and blubber and beer. A place she had promised Da never to go. There was mystery in that town. There were ships setting off for faraway places and others coming back with wonder and miracles… but Lettie wasn’t allowed near them.‘
| And then there’s Noah, they boy who’s a traveller from his roots to the tips of his branches (which he has) – ‘That’s what the sea is: freedom. A million invisible roads to everywhere. Before I get planted in the ground and turn into a tree like my grandmother, I want to see the world. And the sea is the only place I know where you can’t put down roots.‘ ==== OH BOY! CAN I RELATE TO THAT ====’“The only thing lonelier than travelling,’ said Noah, ‘is standing still”‘
By the way, The Snow Merchant also has some amazing means of transport and the illustrator, Tomislav Tomic, really let himself go depicting them.
And here’s the list of things my daughter might have found quite disturbing, at least until recently:
- Lettie Peppercorn isn’t who she thought she was or what she thought she was to an extent that even shocked me. Her relationship with her parents isn’t what she thought. It’s a bit like finding out you’re adopted, only more so.
- She suffers from a condition that’s potentially fatal is going to require a radically unusual lifestyle for the rest of her life. Let’s just say Lettie will never lie on a sunny beach. OK, it’s painted in fantasy terms but it’s still obvious.
- She’s a very lonely child at the beginning and although she has a friend, a father, a mother by the end, after a fashion, it’s not clear they’re hers to ‘have and to hold’ in any way a child would consider satisfactory.
Then there’s the interesting question of the role of the mother…
Teresa has a very strong, almost dominating role. She really has a life, and she’s extremely brave, talented, capable, etc, etc… That’s nice for mothers (me). It makes a change from being a mere support structure or killed off in the early stages.
But I wonder if what children look to in stories isn’t precisely the very unrealistic level of autonomy and agency for themselves. It’s not that Lettie is helpless, by any means, but…. I mean, Teresa even chooses Lettie’s friend for her… come on!… says the woman who’s over-analysing a book to see if it would be a good match for her daughter….
Then again, you could say Teresa is just playing the role of supreme mentor and guardian, a role usually reserved for wizardly men with long white beards. Maybe I’m off my rocker wondering whether we mothers should be settling for the subservient support role? Maybe that’s not what our daughters want either? I will find out in due course.
So there you go. There’s a sense in which, while being a whimsical fantasy book, The Snow Merchant is at the cutting edge of some of the harsher issues facing children today. And it may be important in helping them process those issues… but only if they’re ready.
Alternatively, there will be some who will barely notice the issues are there.