Inside The Palace of the Snow Queen

Another look at Barbara Sjoholm’s creative travelogue

Barbara Sjoholm

Barbara Sjoholm is the author of In the Palace of the Snow Queen about her travels in the Scandinavian Far North.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Sápmi (University of Minnesota Press, 2023) is an extraordinary book. If you want to learn more about the Scandinavian Far North, author Barbara Sjoholm will take you on an incredible winter journey in this land of the Sámi.

Sjoholm had been to this area in the summer. This time, however,  she wanted to experience the winter darkness. And she wanted to see something that was not possible to see in the summer because it was not there: the Ice Hotel.

The book is divided into three parts: Early Winter, Mid Winter, and Late Winter. Here are some highlights from each part.

Part One: Early Winter

The primary focus in Early Winter is on the building of the astonishing Ice Hotel. Sjoholm had always been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s story of  the Snow Queen and her palace of ice. She, therefore, traveled to Kiruna to experience a night in the Ice Hotel there. Kiruna is the northernmost city in Sweden, 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

When she arrived at the hotel, she was told that she was too early. The hotel was not yet ready for guests. She said that she was aware of that but she had come early to watch the process of rebuilding the hotel. The hotel melts completely every spring when the temperature goes above freezing. It must then be rebuilt every winter when the temperature reaches -23 ̊ F.

She writes in fascinating detail about how the hotel is built. Everything is constructed from snow and ice including the walls and beds right down to the glasses in the bar. And every year it has a different look as many artists are invited to create the rooms and decorations with new themes.

She then left the Ice Hotel and had some quite amazing adventures. She describes her experience dogsledding on the Finnmark plateau that was not particularly enjoyable. While she was riding on a tobogann pulled by a team of Huskies that ran at breakneck speed, she fell off. She then wished that she were anywhere in the world but there in the extreme cold with perhaps a concussion from hitting her head on the hard snow.

On the other hand, she found her visit to Santa’s Post Office delightful. The employees of this small post office sort out the hundreds of thousands of letters that arrive every year from 184 countries and then respond to each one of them. She met the manager Taina Ollila who was “dressed in red: a red suit, with a red feather boa around her shoulders and bright red lipstick” and introduced herself as “Chief of the Elves.”

Part Two: Mid Winter

Sjoholm then headed to Railway Park for the annual Snow Fest. She first observed the snow sculpture competition in its early stages. There were teams of two people each from Poland, France, England, and Sweden very busy working on their sculptures. They had been given snow cubes and hand tools (saws, shovels, and chisels) and had three days in which to complete their work.

She notes in particular the work underway by the members of the Polish team. They were working on “a grandiose monument called The Slaves: three enormous, thick-shouldered, big-headed bodies straining outward from each other, all in the process of breaking chains.”

A few days later she attended the Reindeer Race. The temperature that day was -22 degrees F. The drivers rode in wooden sleighs pulled by eight reindeer that had harnesses braided in yellow, red, green, and blue, the national Sami colors.. It was not like a horse race, however. Apparently, reindeer are not very competitive animals!

Part Three: Late Winter

In this part of the book, Sjoholm focuses more specifically on the Sami people and their struggles. One current issue is the discovery of iron ore in Kiruna. She explains how it will necessitate the removal of the entire town so that the mining underneath can begin.

This, however, is not a new problem for the Sámi. They have fought for a long time to keep their ancestral land free from intervention. One hundred years earlier, there had been damage to the reindeer’s grazing area and migration route. And now tourism is not only in the summer but also in the winter, and new tourist facilities are rapidly taking over Sámi land.

She then went back to the Ice Hotel, where she planned to stay until it began to melt. It would vanish completely without a trace, and then a new ice hotel would be built when winter returned.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.