A review of The Woman Who Loved Reindeer, by Meredith Ann Pierce

A review of The Woman Who Loved Reindeer, by Meredith Ann Pierce

reindeer1The Woman Who Loved Reindeer, by Meredith Ann Pierce
Magic Carpet Books (256 pages, $5.95, May 2000)

To begin with, I should tell you that I adore Meredith Ann Pierce’s writing. It has a sense of fairy tale about it, a simple yet otherworldly quality. I will happily read anything she’s written and recommend it to others.

Nevertheless, I have to say that The Woman Who Loved Reindeer might push some peoples buttons for reasons that have nothing to do with the high-quality prose.

Caribou is an isolated girl of thirteen or so, living away from her people because of her true dreams and possible magic. Then her sister-in-law unceremoniously gives her a baby to care for. Although Caribou resents the request — the sister-in-law admits that the baby isn’t her husband’s — an obscure impulse makes her accept the child. And then her life starts to get both richer and stranger.

The child — Caribou names him Reindeer — is not entirely human. When he’s still a baby, a golden reindeer nearly takes him away. As he grows, Caribou dreams of him as a reindeer calf and notices that he casts a reindeer’s reflection in the water. Also, he doesn’t entirely comprehend human emotion. He’s a trangl, a shapeshifter who turns into a reindeer, a being that Caribou’s culture fears as essentially untrustworthy — a view that’s not entirely unfounded, since Reindeer seems to have a limited capacity for empathy.

Caribou tries to hide Reindeer’s odd heritage from him, but she can’t disguise his deer’s shadow or his golden blood. One spring he leaves with the deer on their annual migration, leaving her broken-hearted.

Then, a third of the way through the story, the driving force behind the plot becomes apparent. The land that Caribou lives in is experiencing literal upheaval — earthquakes and volcanic events. The spirits that the tribes rely on seem to have fled. Caribou has acquired a reputation as a wisewoman, and the tribal elders request her advice. She finds nothing in her dreams, however; enlightenment comes with Reindeer, who has grown into an inhumanly early adulthood and come back with the migrating deer.

This is where some people may drop the story and never return. Reindeer, now magically the same age as Caribou, is romantically attracted to her — as much as he can be, considering his incomprehension of love. Caribou thinks of him the same way, but since trangl have a strong magical allure, it’s never clear how much her affection is compelled. He doesn’t seem to have enchanted her on purpose, but he certainly knows about it. And since he doesn’t understand why the humans don’t appreciate the trangl seducing them purely for breeding purposes, there’s definitely a hint that he could be using his powers unethically.

The relationship is written with a beautiful, melancholy fairy-tale feel and there’s certainly nothing explicit about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a romance between a man and the woman who raised him — not quite incestuous, but close — and that Reindeer has a magical hold on Caribou.

Personally, I think it would be a pity to reject this book based on the romance. The world that Caribou inhabits is beautiful. There are spirits everywhere, at least until the earthquakes and disruptions drive them away, and it feels like the way our distant ancestors might have seen Earth: a spirit in every spring, magic in every stone circle, and the Northern Lights as ghostly dancers.

Where other stories might have sent Caribou on a quest to stop the volcanic activity, this book treats nature as huge and inexorable, if personified. Here, the challenge is to escape, to survive with as many of Caribou’s people as she can convince to follow her. It’s a vividly drawn journey that takes Caribou further and further into the supernatural part of her world — except that the supernatural and the natural are inextricably entwined. I found Reindeer convincingly alien, emotionally self-contained, self-sufficient — a trait that nicely mirrors his physical self-sufficiency, since he can turn into a deer and live on grass and moss. And Caribou goes from a lonely outcast girl to a strong leader and a shaman. There’s a lot of story packed into a book that stops just shy of two hundred and fifty pages.

In short, I love The Woman Who Loved Reindeer. I recommend it — with the caveat that some people may dislike it just as strongly for the dynamic between the two main characters.

Personally, I think it would be a pity to reject this book based on the romance. The world that Caribou inhabits is beautiful. There are spirits everywhere, at least until the earthquakes and disruptions drive them away, and it feels like the way our distant ancestors might have seen Earth: a spirit in every spring, magic in every stone circle, and the Northern Lights as ghostly dancers.

Where other stories might have sent Caribou on a quest to stop the volcanic activity, this book treats nature as huge and inexorable, if personified. Here, the challenge is to escape, to survive with as many of Caribou’s people as she can convince to follow her. It’s a vividly drawn journey that takes Caribou further and further into the supernatural part of her world — except that the supernatural and the natural are inextricably entwined. I found Reindeer convincingly alien, emotionally self-contained, self-sufficient — a trait that nicely mirrors his physical self-sufficiency, since he can turn into a deer and live on grass and moss. And Caribou goes from a lonely outcast girl to a strong leader and a shaman. There’s a lot of story packed into a book that stops just shy of two hundred and fifty pages.

In short, I love The Woman Who Loved Reindeer. I recommend it — with the caveat that some people may dislike it just as strongly for the dynamic between the two main characters.


Isabel Pelech is the author of “The Wine-Dark Sea,” from Black Gate 14. Her last review for us was The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly.

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