College Alumna Publishes Fantasy Novel

By FINNE MURPHY

Deverie Crystal Photography
Middlebury graduate Katerine Arden ’11 is garnering attention for her new novel.

One need not look far for snowscapes and subzero temperatures when living in Vermont, but the atmospheric world of a new novel by alumna Katherine Arden ’11 offers some consolation: there are colder places to be. Arden’s novel, “The Bear and the Nightingale” hit shelves early January, and this entertaining and absorbing fantasy tale has already garnered attention and praise.

The story of “The Bear” unfolds in the forests and villages of medieval Rus’ in what is modern-day Russia. From the outset, a sense of otherworldliness and fantasy encroaches on the plot like frost on a window. In the opening chapter, a humble family gathers around a massive stove to hear the fairytales and stories of the spirits of the house and of nature. At first, they seem merely stories. As the story progresses, however, the spirits and demons of Russian folklore come to life and reveal themselves to Vasilisa Petronova, the story’s heroine.

Vasya — bold, unusual and brave — pushes against her lot in life, which is to either become a wife and mother or to become a nun. She prefers to wander the forests, honor her household spirits, learn to ride horses, all while rejecting her strictly delineated role in the household and society.

When her widowed father marries a devoutly Christian and severe woman who forbids Vasya from making offerings to appease the household spirits, the whimsical plot begins to take on a disquieting and creepy tone. As Vasya sees the beginnings of tragedy and terror, she must take actions to resist her stepmother and a menacing priest from Moscow bent on instilling fear and piety in the small village. As she fights for what she believes is right, Vasya discovers abilities very few possess and eventually must decide how to save her freezing village.

“The Bear” is Arden’s first novel, but she writes with a vivacity and honesty beyond her years. Arden, who majored in Russian and also specialized in French Literature at the College, had not planned to become a writer after college. In order to escape the frigid climates of Vermont and Russia, Arden moved to Hawaii after graduation. She undertook numerous odd-jobs, and worked every job from a horse-tour guide to a Macadamia nut picker. To stave off boredom, Arden decided to try something she had never done before: write a story. She began writing what she knew, namely Russian fairytales. Vasilisa, the young daughter of a Ukrainian family also working on the farm, inspired Arden and became the heroine of her story.

Arden worked for six months on her manuscript, researching extensively and getting help and advice from friends and family. Eventually, she wondered if she could publish the work that had begun as a distraction.

She eventually found a literary agent and an editor eager to take her on. Not only did Arden sell her first book, but she also signed on to write two more novels. “The Bear” is to be the first novel of a trilogy following Vasilisa and her adventures in medieval Russia.

The novel itself captures the feeling and the spirit of an icy Russian winter: the setting seems to seep off the page, frigid and foreboding. Further, the themes are as chilling as the Russian January: a sense of distrust and fear combined with the eerie magic. As the pagan clashes with the Christian, conflicts between characters as well as eras arise in a frightening and exciting fashion.

Arden, who was chosen for the spring 2017 Barnes and Noble Great New Writers selection, has written a beautiful and daring tale that benefits from her careful research and clear affection for Russian culture and history. “The Bear and the Nightingale” is the kind of engrossing, ethereal novel that pulls readers in and chills them to the bone — in the best way possible.