One of my favorite booksellers raved about “The Bear and the Nightingale” and chose it to be the featured for the month of January at my local independent bookstore. The high praise moved it up on my TBR pile. At the time of reading I was thoroughly captivated by this charming Russian fairytale but now that two weeks have passed and I’m sitting down to review, I find there isn’t much to say. The Bear and the Nightingale feels like a reimagining of an old fairytale where a young girl is sent off by her step-mother to find snowdrops in the middle of winter but for the life of me I can’t remember if there actually is a fairytale like that.
The story starts with Dunya retelling the tale of the Frost King and foreshadowing events to come. Set in fourteenth century Russia, in the wilds about two weeks north of Moscow, lives well to do Pyotr Vladimirovich and his family. His wife’s family comes from a mysterious background and as the book opens Marina announces her fifth pregnancy. Marina dies in childbirth begging Pyotr to raises their daughter, Vasilisa or Vasya, because she is important. We are repeatedly told Vasya is not an attractive child with frog like features and a wild streak. As time passes the reader learns how unique Vasya truly is, she can see and talk to the fairy folk. While others in her village leave scraps of bread and saucers of milk for the domovoi, the guardian of the household, because of superstitious traditions , Vasya will converse and give food directly to it. While ostensibly christian, the Vladimiroviches and the town folk still follow many of the old ways and traditions as Christianity has not taken as strong of a root in the northern wilds as it has in the cities.
As Vasya grows she becomes more in tune with the supernatural world and begins to cause friction with the townsfolk. Pyotr, advancing in years, decides that what Vasya needs is a mother to tame and raise her in the womanly arts of the home. He sets off to Moscow with goods for trade and his two eldest sons. In Moscow he is manipulated by his brother-in-law, Prince Ivan Ivanovich, and by a mysterious man. The prince uses Pyotr to hand off his troublesome daughter, Irina, to be Pyotr’s wife. The mysterious man gives him a necklace that is to be a present for Vasya. Supernatural forces are in motion and Pyotr’s family is about to be swept along.
Irina, like Vasya, can see the household spirits but is terrified of them. Being raised in Moscow as a Christian she interprets these visions as demons or devils, especially as she never sees them in the sanctity of a church. Her life long dream was to take vows and instead she is given away. Irina is not a happy woman and does her best to stamp out the wildness in Vasya.
With the death of the town priest, Father Konstantin is sent from Moscow. A famed icon painter, he lives for the glory of an admiring public and is rather put out for being sent to the wilds. Here is where the story really begins to gain momentum as Father Konstantin rallies the townsfolk to give up their heathenish ways to give all glory to God. However, no longer following “superstitions” leads to poor crops and other calamities making the people desperate.
Vasya is, of course, the only one who truly understands what is happening. Without the protection of the household and natural spirits the townspeople are doomed but how can the odd girl convince the people to turn away from glory promised by Father Konstantin? If we could rate half stars, I would give this 3 1/2. While devouring it at the time, nothing really stands out now.