“And then she remembered how it was taken from her. How aloneness became loneliness. And how loneliness became pain and then pain became terror and then terror became hate. And hate became monstrosity.”
From “The Cold is In Her Bones.”
The Greek myths are some of the most fantastic epics of Western culture, and although their legends of battling monsters, gods toying with mortals, and the rigidity of the Fates, has become a fairy tale rather than a religion, they endure.
Here is the third of three authors that have shaped these ancient stories into something more relatable without losing the magic:
Peternelle van Arsdale has created a classic with The Cold is in her Bones, inspired by the Medusa myth of Ancient Greece. While my other two reviews, Myths and Legends, and Circe, were true retellings: taking the classic tales and fitting them into a narrative for a modern audience, The Cold is in Her Bones grows a new plot and characters, only keeping the head of snakes. And the rage.
Like much of the Greek stories, there are plenty of retellings over the thousands of years. For Medusa, she was originally part of a trio of sisters, the Gorgons, who were frightening to behold with wings and venomous snakes for hair that could turn anyone to stone (although only men are turned to stone in the stories.) The god, Perseus, beheads her to use the still-stone-turning-gaze on an enemy.
In a famous retelling of Roman times, Medusa was originally beautiful, but when raped by the god Poseidon in Athena’s temple, the goddess Athena was so angry at Medusa, that she turned her hair to snakes and her face so ugly it would turn anyone to stone. Medusa was pretty pissed about that.
There’s just so much to unpack with the human psyche and male/female and female/female relationships with just that brief description. Wait till you get scholars into the mix noting that Medusa’s image has never stopped showing up in Western culture: “Medusa has since haunted Western imagination, materializing whenever male authority feels threatened by female agency,” is a quote from Elizabeth Johnston of the book, “The Original ‘Nasty Woman’.” Plus, the victim blaming by a woman to another woman who was raped is just ripe for analysis.
Instead of a literary and cultural research paper, van Arsdale wrote a compelling novel.
The Cold is In Her Bones takes us to a small town in pre-industrial society. The prologue sets the tone, about a girl who loves snakes and wild things and will not be tamed by her family. In desperation, they call the midwife who takes the girl into the woods and buries her alive in the snow. The girl cries for her family, but they do not come, instead, something else hears her and she is transformed into a monster made of snakes that curses the village.
“The people tried to forget the curse. But the curse wouldn’t be forgotten. The curse reached up to them with soft, chubby fingers. The curse held their hands.”
We then begin the story of Milla, a teen girl living on a farm outside a small village with her parents and brother, Niklas. There is an older couple that lives nearby to help. Her life is a series of rules, strict rules to guard against demons, and she is never allowed away from the farm, has never known anyone but the five people there. Milla tries to behave, but cannot seem to please her mother, Gitta, “Gitta’s face was a lock, and Milla had yet to find the key to opening it.” The father is verbally abusive and cold. Her brother, Niklas, is the beloved one, but the siblings love each other despite the favoritism. Milla struggles with her life, but knows nothing else.
She wondered if all girls were treated this way, like something to be frightened for, or ridiculed and thought ignorant if they ever did speak, or found useless if they weren’t perfectly behaved all the time. How was she any better that Stig’s dog?”
One day, a young woman named Iris arrives, the granddaughter to the older neighbors. The plan is for Iris and Niklas to wed. Milla and Iris become fast friends, loving each other dearly, and Milla is happier than she has ever known.
But then Iris starts to change and Milla learns a secret: The reason she was never allowed to the village is because it is cursed. The young women of the village, sweet and obedient one day, will turn angry and savage the next. It begins with a voice in their head telling them that everyone they love is against them and soon they go mad with rage.
When it happens, the families call the midwife who takes the girls to The Place, where they can do no harm. Milla was kept away from the village to keep her safe, and Iris was sent to the farm in the hopes she would be too. Suddenly, Milla understands her family’s fear and wariness around her, the sharp rebukes whenever she voiced any frustration or anger- they were afraid she would get the curse. The curse that Iris now has.
It destroys the family.
Once the family finds out about Iris hearing voices, they decide to take her to The Place. Milla is distraught but cannot overrule the adults. Niklas takes Iris there, bound and screaming. But he refuses to abandon Iris, whom he has also come to love, and stays with her in The Place, causing his parents to despair. And Milla, now without her best friend and brother, is alone. Finally, Milla’s mother tells the truth about the curse, the curse was caused by Milla’s Aunt Hulda. (The girl in the prologue.) Milla decides to take matters into her own hands to free her friend, bring her brother home and break the curse. But she is a girl who had never left the farm and everything is new and frightening. And she starts to grow snakes out of her head.
Milla goes on a journey, discovering the world, the basis of fear, and the power of Vengeance. Despite the snakes (who become companions), she does not hear the voices in her head to make her go mad. Instead, she starts to listen to her own voice.
“Milla! You don’t know what you’re saying.” It struck Milla how strange that phrase was, and how often she heard it, or some variation. You don’t know what you’re saying, Milla. You don’t know what you’re doing, Milla. You don’t know what you’re thinking, or feeling, or wanting, Milla. Anyway, when people said that to her they didn’t really mean that she didn’t know. Of course she knew. They meant she was wrong. But she wasn’t wrong.”
Both boys and girls do know what they are thinking and feeling and wanting. The Cold is In Her Bones is a call to recognize girls as equal human being capable of knowing the world and dealing with it in their own way. I know this novel is aimed at girls and women, but I hope boys and men read it too. The scary Medusa is a young girl unable to lock up her rage at an unfair life. Wouldn’t they be angry too?
I recommend The Cold is In Her Bones for ages 12 and up. Because I keep track of such things, van Arsdale had a 70% female speaking character ratio. I did include the loyal mare, Fulla in this list, not because she talks, but she is a guide to Milla in a new world plodding steadily on, taking our heroine where she needs to go. (Incidentally, the author saw my Instagram feed noting Fulla made the list and was very happy.)
In Myths and Legends we hear about the ancient Greeks and their society that diminished and violated women, even if they were goddesses. And only by becoming monsters could a woman seek revenge, until she was killed by a hero.
The ancient Medusa story tells us how a woman punishes another woman for being raped, of women holding down other women in a vain attempt to climb up into a world that will never let them in.
In Circe, the tale ends with our protagonist realizing she can never win in this world and must create a new one. The Cold is In Her Bones could be taken as a warning of the power of a woman’s rage, but I see it as a call to honor girls from the beginning, allow them to freely express themselves to be the wild, lovable creatures they are.
Disclaimer: GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.