Nancy Farmer never intended to be a writer. Rather, the award-winning childen's author says, "I wanted to be an explorer . . . to go out and have adventures and have fun." Although she's no Christopher Columbus, Farmer has certainly had her share of adventures, from spending three years in the Peace Corps in southern India to living in a California temple with a group of Hare Krishnas. Eventually, she says, "I wanted to do something interesting, so I bought a ticket on a freighter to Africa." She ended up spending nearly 20 years in Africa, where she met and married her husband, Harold.
It was only after the couple returned to the U.S. that Farmer's writing career flourished. From Do You Know Me?, set in Zimbabwe, to The House of the Scorpion, a futuristic look at human cloning that won the 2002 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Farmer has used her love of adventure to create wonderfully engaging books for young readers.
In her latest novel, The Sea of Trolls, Farmer ushers readers into an exciting, unpredictable world to sail the high seas and explore mysterious landscapes in the company of great Norsemen, trolls, an eerily knowledgeable crow and an enormous wild boar with magical powers, among other fantastical beings.
The story begins in 793 A.D., when a small Saxon village is raided and destroyed by beserkers Vikings, or Northmen, who thrive on battle and blood and fame. Jack (a budding bard with magical powers he has not yet mastered) and his younger sister Lucy are kidnapped by the mighty Olaf One-Brow. The two struggle to remain hopeful despite the threats of Thorgil, an angry shield maiden, and any number of bizarre and unimaginable dangers not to mention the seemingly impossible quest they must embark on if they ever hope to return home.
In an interview from her home in California, Farmer says her interest in Norse mythology was sparked by a book her husband gave her. "I wanted a vacation after finishing The House of Scorpions," she explains. "It was a depressing book to write. I wanted something I'd never seen or done before." She studied numerous books on history and mythology (those who are similarly entranced can find further reading in the Sources section of The Sea of Trolls), learning about Norse kings, trolls and Viking society. "Some things I made up, and some I got from mythology," she says.
The combination of mythology and Farmer's imagination is a powerful one; whether detailing Jack's attempt to please the angry Olaf or describing the physiognomy of the eight-foot-tall trolls strong women with sharp wits and mind-reading abilities the story is exciting and filled with more than enough surprises to ensure enthusiastic page-turning. Farmer's intricate descriptions of plants, insects and the countryside paint pulsating, bright mental images of a lush fantasyland.
The story will call to mind The Lord of the Rings the quest, the unexpected bonding among those who might otherwise never have met, the fantastical people and creatures encountered along the way. Says Farmer, "I've obviously read and reread Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell. I practically have them memorized." Farmer says September 11 also influenced her as she wrote The Sea of Trolls. "I started writing after 9/11, and I did look for a point in history that was similar [to the historical events in the book]." This way, she says, "Kids could approach the idea of 9/11 indirectly, and come to terms with things on a symbolic level. Lots of children's writers write about an actual event, but I thought [9/11] might be a little too intense for children." And, she points out, "I like writing for kids because they're so wide open to ideas. Adults will pick up books like McDonald's hamburgers and eat them and drop them, but you can try all sorts of things writing for kids." Her young fans have responded enthusiastically. "I do hear from children a lot," she says. "It's quite startling I worry because I don't have that much to teach people. I'm here for the cheap thrills. Don't base your life on me!" Linda M. Castellitto has never encountered a wild boar, thank goodness.