The Snow Child: A Novel

Image of The Snow Child: A Novel
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
February 1, 2012
Publisher/Imprint: 
Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books
Pages: 
400
Reviewed by: 

“Ms. Ivey’s debut novel is a triumph—a splendid retelling of a familiar tale that glows with the intensity of the northern lights and generates its own magic. Like a snowflake on a fingertip, the reading experience is over all too soon, but Faina’s story will linger in readers’ hearts long after the book is done.”

“Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl, and perhaps she will come alive, and be a little daughter to us.” So say the childless couple in the Arthur Ransome retelling of the Russian fairytale Little Daughter of the Snow. In Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child, a childless couple homesteading in 1920s Alaska inadvertently do the same.

The Snow Child opens with the woman, Mabel, walking across what she hopes is a partially frozen river. Desperately lonely while her husband Jack spends long days breaking ground for potato fields, Mabel is completely overwhelmed by the immensity and the absolute silence of the land—even though it was her idea to come.

“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scratched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart. When she washed the dishes, plates and bowls clattered as if they were breaking to pieces. . . . November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought—cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between the cabin logs. But most of all, darkness. Darkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked.”

The only escape that Mabel can see is to take her own life. “There were guns in the house, and she had thought of them before. The hunting rifle beside the bookshelf, the shotgun over the doorway, and a revolver that Jack kept in the top drawer of the bureau. She had never fired them, but that wasn’t what kept her. It was the violence and unseemly gore of such an act, and the blame that would inevitably come in its wake. People would say she was weak in mind or spirit, or Jack was a poor husband. And what of Jack? What shame and anger would he harbor?

“The river, though—that was something different. Not a soul to blame, not even her own. It would be an unfortunate misstep. People would say, if only she had known the ice wouldn’t hold her. If only she’d known its dangers.”

But Mabel’s river walk ends without mishap. Not long after, in a rare moment of levity during the first snowfall, she and her husband Jack make a little girl out of snow. The next day, they spy an elusive, blonde-haired child flitting through the woods. She can’t be real. No child could survive on their own in the Alaskan wilderness. Or can she?

The little girl, who calls herself Faina, hunts with a red fox at her side. She skims lightly across the snow, and leaves blizzards in her wake. She seems to thrive in the cold and can’t tolerate heat; so much that Mabel fears Faina will melt like the child in the fairytale if she gets too close to a fire.

“I am a child of the snow,” Ms. Ivey quotes Freya Littledale’s retelling. “I must go where it is cold.”

“Is Faina real?” is the question that haunts much of the book. Ms. Ivey’s telling is so enthralling that the reader yearns for Faina’s existence to be true as much as Mabel does.

As the years pass and Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this strange, ethereal child who seems to have stepped from the pages of a fairytale, they come to love her as their own daughter.

But a child of the wilderness who can read every nuance of her harsh environment and withers visibly whenever she is indoors can’t be contained any more than one could hang onto a handful of snow.

The Snow Child is greatly informed by Ms. Ivey’s life in Alaska. Readers who have lived in northern climates will recognize the details of the landscape she paints so vividly.

Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and lives there with her husband and two daughters.

As a family, they harvest salmon and wild berries, keep a vegetable garden, turkeys, and chickens, and they hunt caribou, moose, and bear for meat.

Because they don't have a well and live outside any public water system, they haul water each week for their holding tank and gather rainwater for their animals and garden. Their primary source of home heat is a woodstove, and they harvest and cut their own wood.

Ms. Ivey’s debut novel is a triumph—a splendid retelling of a familiar tale that glows with the intensity of the northern lights and generates its own magic. Like a snowflake on a fingertip, the reading experience is over all too soon, but Faina’s story will linger in readers’ hearts long after the book is done.