Returning to Sápmi

The Palace of the Snow Queen

The Norwegian American

Over 20 years ago, Pacific Northwest scholar and writer Barbara Sjoholm decided to venture into the north of Norway during the mørketid, the darkest time of the year. What resulted from her winter travels over the course of three years was her book The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Sápmi, first published in 2007.

Described as “an exquisite book” by writer and critic Vendela Vida, Sjoholm’s travel tale describes the beauty of the Arctic, taking readers into a magical winter wonderland. But this book is more than a travelogue about chasing the northern lights: it is filled with keen insights about the Indigenous people of the Far North, their history, their traditions, their challenges in the face of a world that in rapidly changing in the face of industrialization, tourism, and climate change. Now in a new edition published in 2023, the book is still highly relevant, as is apparent in its thoughtful afterword.

With her story, Sjoholm cracks open the myth of how many of us imagine life above the Arctic Circle to be. She admittedly first traveled there with her own romantic notions about what life in “Europe’s last wilderness” was like. The title of the book, The Palace of the Snow Queen, with its allusion to the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, hint at a feeling of mystery and adventure, a feeling that carries you from beginning to end.

The descriptions of the landscape are at times magically stunning, but even in the opening passage, the harshness of the landscape is juxtaposed with this beauty: “Mid-November and already it was dusk, the blue hour, when the slate-colored snow looks colder than white.”

During her travels and sojourns in the North, Sjoholm learns that the Sámi people have learned to survive there in a remote icy region that has been colonized and exploited for mining, industrialization, and tourism. It can be a harsh reality. There are past injustices to uncover and a contemplate as well as a revitalization of Sámi life that offers inspiration and hope.

One central place and a point of departure for Sjoholm is the Icehotel in Juukkasjärvi, Sweden. She describes the vibe as “artistic, international, and artificially remote,” yet anchored in the past, as Juukk­asjärvi has historically been an important gathering and trading place for the Sámi. It is this juxtaposition of past and present, tradition and progress, that empowers the reader to understand a region that so often has been so misunderstood.

In the afterword, we learn about what has happened in the city of Kiruna, one of the most important centers of the Swedish mining industry. Already in the 2000s, when Sjoholm first was there, over-mining had caused massive tremors and shaking, which had caused its buildings to develop cracks, culminating in a major earthquake in 2020. Historical buildings have been lost, and the people of Kiruna have been forced to leave their homes of generations, as the town is being relocated, lest if fall into the earth. For many, this demolition and relocation of their city is no less than a tragedy, as that history cannot be reconstructed and relocated.

If you are looking for a fascinating read for your Easter holidays, The Palace of the Snow Queen will take you into another world. While I had read the first edition and did not have time to reread it in its entirety, the afterword alone makes it worth buying the new edition. There is both much to enjoy and much to learn.

Sjoholm, Barbara. (2023). The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Sápmi. University of Minnesota Press. Available from major booksellers. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.