I discovered ‘Indian Summer’ by Adalbert Stifter through Jonathan’s review of it. But ‘Indian Summer’ was hard to get. And Jonathan said that his favourite Stifter novel was ‘Rock Crystal’. As I was able to get a copy of ‘Rock Crystal’, I read it first. Here is what I think.
‘Rock Crystal’ is a short novella. Or a long short story, depending on how you look at it. It describes the adventures of a brother (Conrad) and his sister (Sanna) in the mountains. First some background. There is a village called Gschaid in the valley. It is surrounded by mountains. The highest mountains are snowcapped throughout the year and have a glacier which melts during summer which fills the stream which is the source of water for the village. The people in the valley keep to themselves and rarely venture outside. They marry within themselves, love each other, have their quarrels and live their quiet lives there. There lives a shoemaker there. He falls in love with a girl who lives in the town called Millsdorf on the other side of the mountain. The girl’s father resists the shoemaker’s advances. But the shoemaker woos her persistently, and after a while the girl’s father agrees to their marriage. After they get married, the girl comes to live with the shoemaker. They have a couple of children, a boy called Conrad and girl called Sanna. The children’s grandparents love them very much, especially the grandmother. She frequently comes to visit them, eventhough it means taking the mountain path and coming to the other side. But after a few years, it becomes hard for her to make that long trip. Fortunately, in Gschaid, children are encouraged to travel on their own and soon when Conrad and Sanna become old enough, they travel on their own and visit their grandmother. Once during Christmas Eve, they visit their grandmother. Their grandmother makes delicious treats for them, packs presents in their bags and sends them back early. On the way back, it starts snowing. In the beginning, the snow is light and so the children enjoy the snow. But after a while, the snow becomes heavy, and the children are travelling through their well-worn route more out of habit, as they are not able to see anything more than a few feet away. After a while, the snow lays a white carpet over everything – the forest floor, the path, the trees – and the children discover that they are not able to see any familiar landmarks. Before they know their paths have become steeper and they are climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Then they reach a place which is filled with big rocks and they discover that these are made of ice. It looks like they have reached somewhere near the top of the mountain and everywhere they look there is ice. It is the glacier. They are trapped and they can’t move in any direction.
So, what do they do? Are Conrad and Sanna trapped in the glacier? Are they able to find their way down? I am going to leave you on a cliffhanger here. To find out how the story ends, you should read the rest of the book.
‘Rock Crystal’ started off quite slowly. There was a lot of description about the village, the nearby town, the people and their culture and their attitudes. It was slow reading. But once the events of the story start moving and especially when we start following Conrad and Sanna on their return from their grandmother’s place and it starts snowing, we know that the slow pace of the story is going to change and things are going to get scary. The way Adalbert Stifter captures the beauty of the snow, the white carpet it weaves over everything, the way he makes us readers realize that the children have lost their way even before they realize it, and the stunning realization that happens (to both the children and us readers) when they reach the top of the mountain and encounter the glacier – all these are masterfully done. I found myself praying hard for the children and hoping that they would be able to come back down safely to the warmth of their home and I found my heart beating fast every time they got into more and more complicated situations. There is a scene where they wait out the night and get up in the morning hoping that during the day they can find their way back and when it is daylight, they look around and find that all around them there are high, majestic snowy peaks, brilliantly reflecting the sunshine with a kaleidoscope of colours, endlessly stretching away in all directions – a stunning scene which is beautiful and majestic and intimidating all at the same time, that our hearts beat hard, not being able to take in the beauty, and a deep pain seeps in as we are fearful for the safety of the children. It is one of the great scenes in the book.
I loved ‘Rock Crystal’. It was simple, beautiful and gripping. I emotionally invested in the characters, cared for them, prayed for them. There is nothing more that one could ask for in a book. I would love to read more of Stifter’s works.
Have you read ‘Rock Crystal’? What do you think about it?