Book Review: The Snow Child
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child begins with sharp, icy reality as we step out into the silent Alaskan wilderness with Mabel. An aging homesteader who can no longer abide the distance that childlessness and numbing work have built between herself and her husband Jack, she is ready to let the winter claim her. But it isn’t long before we, with Mabel, have caught the rusty flash of fur between the trees and found ourselves compelled to follow it into an alternate world of enchantment.
In this retelling of the Russian fairy tale, Jack and Mabel leave everything but their sorrows in Pennsylvania and start a new life in Alaska. But the long, dark winters reinforce their loneliness and disappointments, and the more they try to reach out for one another, the further they seem to drift apart. Then one evening, during a surprise snowfall, the couple find themselves delighting in the snow like a pair of children. Snow angels lead to snowmen, and soon they are fashioning a delicate little girl from snow and dressing her in a red scarf and mittens. Inexplicably, the next morning she is gone, and soon after they begin to have mysterious sightings of a wild girl and a fox in the forest. Cautiously, they coax her out. As she learns to trust them, they name her Faina, and a most unusual relationship begins.
But who is she, and where did she come from? Is she a lone survivor, as Jack believes, or the miracle Mabel insists?
Mabel recalls reading as a child a Russian fairy tale about a snow baby who comes to life. She goes so far as to write to her sister Ada, discretely asking if she remembers the book. Ada, enclosing the volume with her return letter, writes that she never put much stock in such things in her youth, but:
In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.
Have they found magic? Or are Jack and Mabel both wrong about Faina, and she is simply a figment of their loneliness and desires? And does it matter? The love they have for her—and the love for each other that her presence rekindles—is real. That real love is what thaws their resistance to the life-giving local community and sustains them when circumstances turn sad once again.
Ron Charles, in his otherwise admiring review in the Washington Post, notes that the book is overlong. Though a number of passages could be cut with no harm to the story—which is ultimately a simple one—Ivey’s writing is lovely and a pleasure to read. The wild beauty of Alaska emerges, one berry, one branch, and one river otter at a time, the landscape as much a character as Faina.
The world Ivey evokes is one of hope in desperation, community in isolation, tenderness in mutual pain. And the balance she achieves between reality and fantasy invites the reader to participate in the storytelling and consider with Ada whether perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image, where I am fiction reviews editor.