Call of the Deep North: “Palace of the Snow Queen” by Barbara Sjoholm

Palace of the Snow Queen coverThe Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.

Author Barbara Sjoholm makes her winter travels in Lapland personal from her first pages, where she confides her deep sadness and restlessness after a breakup with her long-term partner. These two emotions propelled her to undertake a difficult journey north, first to Kiruna, Sweden, and nearby Jukkasjärvi, the site of the famed Icehotel.  In the end, she will describe three trips to Lapland, or Sápmi,  inhabited by the Sami people, lands which stretch across the northern portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and even into Russia.  She is very conscious of author-travelers who have preceded her to these regions, and she repeatedly compares and contrasts her impressions with those of the British travelers Frank Hedges Butler, Olive Murray Chapman, and Norah Gourlie, whose published journals she includes in her helpful bibliography. She is a journalist at heart, in both senses: one who keeps a careful journal of experiences, and a reporter who wants to dig for the story behind appearances. Her reporter instincts will lead her to track down information about the tense relationship between the growing winter tourism and the local inhabitants.  But I’m getting ahead of things; let’s first savor her bellwether experience visiting the Icehotel while it was under construction in mid-November.

Sjoholm arrived in Kiruna, an iron-ore mining town, and by her own admission, couldn’t wait to leave it and get on with her trip to Jukkasjärvi. When she told the receptionist at her hotel in Kiruna that she was staying only one night, that lady felt obliged to let her know the Icehotel wouldn’t be open for a while. Apparently, not many people make the trip early to watch the artists, architects, and ice sculptors at work on creating the multi-room hotel of ice.  Sjoholm lived among what amounted to an artists’ colony for a good portion of the time it took to make the structure and finish the lighting and other interior decoration.  She learned about the construction process and reports it in fascinating detail. The Icehotel uses principles learned from both ice-block fortresses and igloos, with their perfect insulation caused by heating and refreezing of the inner surfaces. Blocks of ice are cut in spring from the Torne River, stored, and used for some basic construction tasks, and for ice sculptures. For unusual shapes, snow (or “snice”–a specially made mixture of snow and ice crystals) can be cast in molds with a reinforced frame. On the igloo model, a blowtorch is used to melt the snow and ice surfaces and create a glassy coating. I especially liked the process of “sneezing” or spraying snice on the walls for a final smoothing.  The author likens the frozen building material to concrete, or even stone and mortar: ice is the stone and snow is the mortar. Of course, the snow eventually compacts and turns to ice, adding even further to the hotel’s solidity and strength.

Sjoholm was amazed at what the artists envisioned and what they achieved. Besides the guest rooms, the main reception hall, chapel, Absolut Ice Bar, and hallways are showcases for creativity. Since the hotel is built at the start of each winter and melts in spring, it is different each year, but here is a little gallery of representative rooms (click thumbnails to enlarge; further details on photos at Icehotel wiki).

You can see more room photos at the Icehotel website–if I were going to pick a room for myself, it would definitely be the Northern Lights Room!

Sjoholm did not choose to stay overnight in the Icehotel during this first visit, although she loved to roam the empty hotel as it began to take shape. The quiet inside the snow and ice structure was amazing to her:

Snow’s insulating properties made it possible to stand in a room and hear nothing of what was happening a few feet away.  It was unlike any other space I’d ever found myself in.  Even in its unfinished state, the interior aroused awe in me–not the claustrophobia I’d been expecting. The light suffused everything and gave definition to the packed snow crystals curving up to form an arch over my head. I was surrounded by a substance both gossamer and weighty. Inside the Icehotel it was hard to know up from down and where my body was in relation to the external world, which had been reshaped by light. (p.22)

The building is lighted by cool LED lamps and colorful fiber optics embedded in the walls. The room ceilings are catenary arches for the best stability and longest life of the structure as it melts.  It was clearly a marvel of frozen engineering, but also a place of imagination and romance–no accident that she packed a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and read and reread “The Snow Queen” during her stay.

After the surreal tranquility of the Icehotel interiors, Sjoholm traveled farther north into Norway, talking with more people including writer Laila Stien, and then embarked on the very unsettling outdoor adventure of dog sledding! It was so physically demanding that she fell off several times; between injuries and the extreme cold, she decided to cut short her dogsled tour and recover in a friend’s home. Although her tour was conducted and managed by a Sami tour company, she learned that dog sledding is not native to this region (being more suited to Greenland and other parts of the Arctic) and it encroached significantly on reindeer herding land. I learned from her investigation that reindeer will not cross trails that the dogs have been traveling, which presents obvious problems for their healthy coexistence in the same territories. Sjoholm is dogged (if I may be allowed the pun) in her reporting, talking with people holding varied viewpoints and discovering the nuances of local customs and politics, but her sympathies clearly lie with the Sami, who have occupied this land for 6,000 years but have had to struggle for full political rights. Many, but certainly not all, continue to herd reindeer, albeit with some modernized methods,  such as tracking the herd’s grazing patterns via computers and GPS.

I have hit only a few of the highlights from her three trips to the deep north. Don’t miss her stops in Finland at Santa’s Post Office in Rovaniemi or at the Ice Cinema in Inari. But above all, her wonder and changing views of the Palace of the Snow Queen serve to frame her experience. When she returned at the end of her third trip, she appreciated the mining town of Kiruna much more, staying there longer, roaming its streets to discover every corner and meet many of its residents. It was April, the last weeks before melting would make occupancy of the Icehotel unsafe.  She took the opportunity at last to stay overnight in a room.  Once again, it wasn’t quite what she expected, but she described the strangeness of sleeping in a room of ice so well, I reached for an extra sweater! Highly recommended reading. I hope I can see it, and shiver there, myself someday!


About Lucy Pollard-Gott

Author of The Fictional 100.
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6 Responses to Call of the Deep North: “Palace of the Snow Queen” by Barbara Sjoholm

  1. momssmallvictories says:

    Love these pictures of Icehotel! This sounds like a fascinating novel for Nonfiction November and our Travel the World in Books reading challenge. Adding to my TBR! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tanya! This was one I stumbled on in the library among the Scandinavian travel guides–what a find! She is a great writer and brings a healthy skepticism about the prejudices that all travel writers, including herself, carry with them.


  2. JaneGS says:

    I’m increasingly becoming fascinated by the north, via your reviews, Lucy. I really this kind of book–part travelogue, part memoir, but with a journalist’s skill in finding a story.

    The photos are amazing, and the description of the ice space and building with ice are so interesting.

    I have a brother for whom this book will make the perfect Xmas gift.

    Another excellent review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jane! I’m so glad to hear that you want to pass along this book. I agree about the genre that straddles travelogue and memoir. I have one more like this (well, several really) and then I want to write about Andersen’s autobiography–it’s taking me a while to read it, but it’s fascinating–he seems to have met so many of the important writers and artists who were his contemporaries.


  3. Pingback: Call of the Deep North: “An African in Greenland” by Tété-Michel Kpomassie | Northern Lights Reading Project

  4. Pingback: The Ultimate Winter Reading List: Get Cozy and Travel the World in Books

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