The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2012
Reviewer – Sheri de Grom
Stay away from novels with a semblance to fairytales, I tell myself. Don’t go there. Disappointment waits.
I met surprise at the turn of each new page. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, deserves an uninterrupted evening at home. Turn off your telephone and prepare for a marvelous read about a snow girl come to life and the daily lives of 1920 Alaskan homesteaders.
Jack and Mabel could have chosen a comfortable life in Pennsylvania but it was difficult being around their large extended families and the endless talk about children. They desperately wanted children and believed they would one day have a houseful of them.
The children weren’t meant to be. Twenty years later, after the birth of a stillborn son, they find themselves just an old man and an old woman alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
They both still long for a child. They hope the quiet, hard work of carving out a homestead in the desperate loneliness of Alaska will fulfill the emptiness in their hearts.
They soon learn the Alaskan wilderness is unforgiving and Mabel wants to work alongside Jack, but Jack wants Mabel to be a housewife. She’s lonely. How many times can she sweep the rough boards of their log cabin floor? She doesn’t even have a real broom.
Jack didn’t want to return to Pennsylvania but soon realizes he’s too old for homesteading without help. The other Alaskan homesteaders have strong sons to help them clear and work the land.
The scenes Eowyn Ivey writes of Jack and Mabel’s fun times, their intimate and caring exchanges, plus the fearful moments of concern for one another are tender and passionate. The characters are connected.
It’s easy to understand how Jack and Mabel were in their youth. They understand the needs of one another.
The first snowfall arrives and together they make a snowman in their front yard. At the last moment, they decide to turn it into a snow girl. Carving the bottom ball into a skirt and adding birch branches for arms help, but Jack’s delicate carving of facial features bring her to life. The sadness in Jack’s face might be the grief he carries for their lost baby. Jack wants his own real life daughter. His face reflects his sorrow in the snow crystals as he carves delicate features for the eyes, nose, lips, cheekbones and a chin.
Eventually Jack adds yellow grass for the snow girl’s hair and Mabel provides red mittens and a blue scarf.
Retreating to their simple log cabin, the winter winds howl and the storm rages into the night. He worries, they are almost out of food and there’s no money left to buy feed for the hens. He should never have allowed Mabel to name them but she hasn’t had much to entertain herself with in this place of white snow and more white upon white.
The following morning Jack and Mabel see signs of the snow girl coming to life, the same as in the Russian fairytale. They are afraid to say anything to the other but each sees the same thing.
Pg.55[When she turned to pull the door closed, she glimpsed blue in the snow-laden spruce trees beyond the yard. She strained her eyes and no longer saw blue, but instead red fur. Blue fabric. Red fur. A child, slight and quick in a blue coat, passing through the trees. A blink, and the little coat was gone and there was slinking fur, and it was like the flipping black-and-white pictures she had seen in a coin-operated illuminated box in New York City. Appearing and disappearing motion, child and woodland creature each a passing flicker.]
The winter continues with snow and more snow. Jack and Mabel’s food supply dwindles and he has to hunt every day. If he could just shoot a moose, it would carry them through the winter with the potatoes they have. He’s never hunted before, not even for sport. Now their lives depend on his substandard skills.
Discouragement fills their days, yet they continue their sightings of the girl running in and out of the woods and their spirits are fulfilled with the joy of believing she’s a living child and not a figment of their imagination.
Jack meets George, a neighbor from down river, on one of his bleak trips into town for the last of what they can afford for supplies. George explains the mines are hiring but Jack should avoid working there at all costs – it’s almost certain death. Jack explains he may have no choice.
Mabel doesn’t want other people visiting their home nor does she want to become acquainted with anyone else. She’s moved into a world of her own. She watches for appearance of the snow girl and builds a pretend relationship with her. Or, is it pretend?
George’s wife, Esther, is the likes of a woman Mabel has never seen before. She wears pants, can kill and dress out chicken and wild game, shoot weapons, is surprisingly friendly and possesses a wealth of information Mabel needs to learn if she is to survive in this brutal land.
Mabel’s primary complaint about Esther centers on her accusing Mabel she’s making up daydreams about the snow girl.
Pg. 77[“I didn’t mean to speak out of turn, Mabel, but this isn’t an easy place to get along. The winters are long, and sometimes it starts to get to you. Around here, they call it cabin fever. You get down in the dumps, everything’s off kilter and sometimes your mind starts playing tricks on you.” Esther reaches across the table and put a hand over Mabel’s. “You start seeing things that you’re afraid of. . . or things you’ve always wished for.”]
Jack wishes the snow child real, the same as Mabel. On one of his trips to town he purchases a miniature porcelain doll for the girl. Later that night, he calls to her, “This is for you. Are you out there?”
Pg. 86[A faint memory emerged again and again—her father, a leather-bound fairy-tale book, a snow child alive in its pages. She couldn’t clearly recall the story or more than a few of the illustrations, and she began to worry about it, letting her thoughts touch it again and again. If there was such a book, could there be such a child? If an old man and woman conjured a little girl out of the snow and wilderness, what would she be to them? A daughter? A ghost?]
Pg. 87[Not only was the child a miracle, but she was their creation. One does not create a life and then abandon it to the wilderness.]
Life is hard enough for Jack and Mabel in post-World War I Alaska, in the dead of winter, without wondering if the snow child is real or not. What have they done? Have they created this girl? Are they responsible for her well-being even though she won’t let them get close to her?
I cared for Jack and Mabel. They are salt-of-the-earth people. They deserve to be happy and free of the hardships the Alaskan wilderness throws their way on a daily basis. The snow child comes and goes. Jack and Mabel don’t understand. They know they are miserable when she’s not present. Then, Jack is severely injured while working the fields and it appears the end is near—his fatality.
Pg. 174 [She was alone. The strong husband who had cared for her was a crumpled man who sobbed in the night and begged her to leave him, to go back home and find a new life without him. The little girl she had begun to love had vanished, another child lost. Sitting upright in the chair, she slept in brief, intense bouts at odd hours and dreamed of a bloody, stillborn infant and puddles of snowmelt.]
After Jack’s accident, Garret, the youngest son of Esther and George come to live with Jack and Mabel to assist with the farm work. It is Garret, an adolescent boy, who teaches Mabel the things she wanted to learn in Alaska. She’d pictured herself being useful and now she knows how to raise a crop of root vegetables.
Unfortunately, Garret doesn’t confine his helping to farming. Through the years, the snow girl grows into a beautiful young woman for all to see.
As I turned the pages, the snow child became a charming young woman moving through adolescence and young adulthood. How could she not be real? Mabel and Jack deserve the happiness the snow girl brings them—but will she melt in the spring or earlier if she gets too close to the fireplace? The Russian fairytale tells us Faina, the snow girl, cannot live without the snow and ice.
Garret falls in love with Faina and she with him. The handsome prince always marries the princess I tell myself. Where’s the wicked witch I wonder? What about the red and silver fox that darts through the woods with Faina?
I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never much believed in fairy tales and I’ve always believed we’re responsible for our own happy ending. But, this is fiction.
The Snow Child is a can’t put down novel. Debut author, Eowyn Ivey’s prose is sensuous as she describes her native Alaska. Who would have thought there were so many ways to describe snow, cold and ice? How many different ways to tie the strings of a cap under a chin? Ivey is a master of breathtaking detail.
I didn’t want this novel to end but raced to the conclusion—I hungered for every last detail Eowyn Ivey wrote. The Snow Child is masterfully written. A must read.