Odd is a twelve-year-old boy, the son of a Viking who died two years ago after a raid. Soon after this raid, Odd crushes his leg under a falling tree he had been trying to cut down. His step-father ignores him, and other citizens don’t like him due to his distant, irritating personality. Tired of this treatment, Odd decides to go off and live on his own. Instead he meets a fox, a bear, and an eagle, the avatars of the Norse gods Loki, Thor, and Odin respectively. They tell him that frost giants have taken over Asgard (the home of the gods). Because a giant trapped them in animal forms, they need help to return to Asgard and get rid of the threat.
From a mythology buff’s perspective, I was delighted with Odd and the Frost Giants. From a disability perspective, though, I was confused.
Even though my limp stems from a different source than Odd’s, I could definitely relate to him. The narrative says that “down was harder than up for Odd” which, at least in my case, has rung true. While going up a hill is difficult and painful, going down a hill is twice as difficult when your cane can’t get a grip and your leg can’t steady you.
I even felt a grumble of jealousy when Odd rides a bear (actually Thor) while traveling. Canes are great and all, but a bear? I want a service bear. I’d never have to put up with walking again. All bear, all the time. However, Odd clearly does not share my opinion of bear-riding, as he walks some distances while still having the option of bear travel. This is not explained in the book. I would have accepted Odd wanting to keep his independence, or maybe the bouncing making his leg hurt. Without an explanation, though, it just seemed out of place.
It was mostly details that bothered me throughout the book. Odd seems to maneuver well and can easily do tasks with his hands. It might just be me as a klutz, but swinging an axe, holding a crutch, and not falling over seems almost impossible to me.
Then there are small questions I wished the book would answer. Does the cold make his leg hurt more? Does he ever get stuck in a snowdrift and have to flail his entire body before his leg comes out (that … might just be a me problem, actually)? While this is a short book (roughly a hundred pages in print), a couple of details or an off-hand mention would have improved the narrative for me.
However, details weren’t the only problem. Descriptions of how Odd’s leg felt to him were patchy. It’s stated that it hurts late in the book (chapter seven) but is never described before as hurting. In fact, it seemed like dead weight beforehand. Pain is not something easily ignored. Even in plain, day-to-day life it looms large. Going from class to class is painful. Getting tea can be painful, even though the kitchen is close. Going on an epic quest which (regardless of bear riding) involves a lot of walking? That would be incredibly painful if pain was a problem for Odd. Frankly, I’d have preferred if it was never said that it hurt so that the reader could assume he couldn’t feel anything in his leg. As it is in the book, I felt cheated of a protagonist that felt the same things as I do.
Odd was not taken up with “woe is me”s, though. He saves the day and gets the frost giants (actually just one frost giant) out of Asgard. He is very much the hero of the book, not just a pity-inducing protagonist.
I was torn on the cure (ish?) ending. Freyja fixes the damage as best she can, though she can’t fix it all the way. He’ll never be able to walk without a crutch, but it will no longer hurt. I don’t know how to feel about that. On one hand, Odd is still disabled. It even states, “His right leg would never be as strong as the left.” And if I could, I’d happily get rid of the pain even if my leg would still be useless.
But it also seemed rather pointless. First of all, he was barely mentioned as being in pain in the first place, so this magical cure didn’t really change anything. Second, he’s given an elaborate and beautiful staff soon after. If you just cut out Freyja’s cure, getting an awesome staff would have been good enough.
Overall, I finished the book feeling uncertain. It tells rather than shows the reader Odd’s condition. The narrative brings up his limp at times when he doesn’t seem affected, such as when he’s sitting or just thinking on topics that don’t in any way involve his limp. His leg hurts, but we’re not told this until late in book. We’re told it impedes him, but never see in which way, as he can walk long distances without too much trouble.
On one final hand, which is technically three hands, I did not notice most of these problems until my second or third read-throughs. My first was mainly taken up by going, “That’s ME! That’s ME!”, cooing and squeaking, and pointing to the screen despite the fact no one but me could see what I was reading. I would still recommend it for young disabled readers who want to see themselves as heroes.
I never considered Odd and the Frost Giants in that particular light, that it had a “cure” narrative. It always seemed to me like a heroic tale, of a young boy overcoming odds and humbling the big three gods by assisting them. I have a soft spot for Neil Gaiman and his writing., but I will keep that narrative in mind when reading beloved works.
Based on your description, it seems like Neil Gaiman’s heart was in the right place, and trying to get things right (not making Odd the star of Pity Porn, not writing the archetypal “Cure Narrative”, etc.), but that he gave him the disability to check off a “Diversity box,” rather than give him qualities drawn from personal experience. So he occasionally forgot about Odd’s injury in weird places (especially in situations where someone with a limp most definitely would not forget)
I don’t really like the advice “Write what you know,” but in this case, it seems like advice he should have taken… or at least taken the time to have someone who does know beta read it for him.