With The Snow Queen
by Joanne Greenberg. Arcade Publishing, 1991, $19.95
Joanne Greenberg’s latest collection of short stories. With the Snow Queen, is as welcome as a Chanel classic. For a quarter of a century, Greenberg has produced a body of short stories and novels that are original and moving. Few who read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (published under the pseudonym, Hannah Green), will ever forget it. Though her prose is spare and leaves little to be inferred, Greenberg’s writing always rings true. It always poses a moral dilemma, and it rarely settles for the easy answer.
The fourteen stories in With the Snow Queen are enormously varied in setting, tone and point-of-view. Greenberg is as comfortable working with male characters as with female; characters vary from a Christian monk in a secluded monastery, to a Jewish Ph.D. in Colorado (Greenberg’s home and the site of several of these tales). Though Greenberg grounds her largest themes in the most mundane and realistic detail, make no mistake about it: these enormously readable stories are parables designed to teach as well as entertain.
In the title story, Sema, the protagonist living in some far future age, begs to travel backwards in time to re-live parts of her life. Hers was a life that had been “reasonable,” and she now finds herself unfulfilled. Like others of her time, Sema had been taught to do what was expected, never to “disturb the universe.” But this life without conflict leaves her numb, the kind of woman who, upon learning of a terrible plague, simply, “low-fatted another piece of barley toast without a sigh.” She goes back in time to the days before her marriage, a visit that would have surprising and disturbing consequences.
“Offering Up” is an imaginative story told in the first person by a monk living in a remote monastery. This monk, along with two fellow brothers, is addicted to a fictitious drug called Limbate, a substance that “doesn’t change the moral or ethical sense; it only stills the voices of recrimination for thoughts and acts already done.” We are told of the irony of living in a community where the inhabitants hope to reach God, but are never able to escape from the pressures of their brothers. So successful is Greenberg in evoking this exotic world and the dilemma of these three inhabitants that we find ourselves almost unable to turn the pages for fear of the outcome.
“Stand Still, Ute River” is one of the most successful stories of the entire col-plague whose effects are “profound depression, sleeplessness, weeping and lethargy.” The way in which Greenberg connects this “plague” to the ancient Jewish ceremony of Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sin into the water, makes this both an ingenious and ultimately comic story.
As I devoured Greenberg’s latest collection, I found myself marvelling at her versatility. She never seems to tell the same story twice, as so many authors do. Though many of these tales have common concerns (the effects of memory, for example), each contains its own milieu, rounded characters, and, in most cases, satisfactory resolution. Occasionally, an ending seems contrived, the result of the exigencies of following out the parable’s lesson. Greenberg’s didacticism is subtle. She is an artist whose stories move and entertain. If you are new to Greenberg, you’ll be visiting the “G” shelves of your public library as soon as you have enjoyed With the Snow Queen. If you are already a fan, you will savor another wonderful visit with an old friend.