The Snow Child: Eowyn Ivey

★★★★

I took a little time to get around to Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: I downloaded the ebook from Amazon a couple of months ago, when it was on sale, without knowing very much about the story, save that it was set in 1920s Alaska. That’s from a later period than the historical fiction I usually read, so I put the book aside as something to try in a quiet moment. That moment came in the last few days, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it sooner: I’ve been captivated by this charming blend of historical novel and fairy tale. I suspect that many of my fellow book-lovers will already have read this, so I’m looking forward to hearing what you felt about it.

Jack and Mabel are a married couple in their fifties, with no children except the lingering grief of a long-ago miscarriage. Hoping to build a new life for themselves in Alaska, the land of opportunity, they have moved north to an isolated, silent, gorgeously bleak country where human existence is a mere veneer on the wilderness of centuries. And yet, beneath their declared optimism, both of them begin to find themselves buckling under the demands of their frontier life; Jack finds himself struggling to cope with the physical demands of clearing a viable homestead, while bright, book-loving Mabel is unable to shake off her inner sense of failure and despair. And then, on the night of the first snow of winter, a tiny spark of joy flickers into life. Regressing to childishness in the snow, they build a figure of a little snow girl in their yard; a figure which has vanished by the following morning. All that remains is a single set of small footprints leading off into the forest.

Gradually Mabel and Jack become aware of the little blonde girl who has appeared in the woods near their cabin, tinged with the wariness of a wild thing and often accompanied by a half-tame red fox. They coax her in with gifts; and in return she leaves them offerings of food trapped or gleaned from the forest which seems so harsh and inhospitable to them. As time passes, she learns to trust them and they begin to believe that their dreams of having a child might come to fruition after all. Fiercely independent, Faina seems to be more a creature of the Alaskan wilderness than a mere child: she is at home in the snow and the trees, an expert trapper, and virtually fearless. As they grow to love her, Mabel and Jack find a new sense of connection with the challenging land they have chosen as their home, and a new energy in their relationship with each other.

But Faina remains half-understood and half wild. Like Persephone, she appears for only half the year, vanishing with the snow at the time of the thaw. Mabel, moved by half-forgotten dreams and memories, feels that there is something ethereal about Faina and begins to grow troubled as she realises how close the situation is to a favourite childhood fairy-tale. Jack, more practically, feels that there are answers to be found; but even he finds something disconcerting about this quiet child, who seems to have an almost supernatural connection with the elements.

This is a lovely little story about love and hope blossoming in later life, overlaid onto the bones of a story that comes from Russian folklore. Ivey explicitly invites us to compare reality with legend, as Mabel follows the old story through the illustrations of the children’s version (in Russian) bought for her by her father. The balance between rationalising the story and keeping certain aspects of it deliciously ambivalent is perfectly held and, even though it’s fairly straightforward to predict the plot developments, this simplicity adds to the book’s charm. Ivey’s prose has a sparseness and austerity that suits her wide, dazzling vistas of snow-covered meadow and the eerie mystery of her spruce woods. It’s a beautiful first novel and I’m keen to see what she comes up with next.

I can’t really say any more, as this is such a simple and beautifully-told story that it’s best experienced for yourself. All I can say is that, if you haven’t already read it, it is genuinely delightful. Since I bought it, Amazon has been recommending The Night Circus, and it’s true that the two books have a very similar feel to them. If you’ve enjoyed one, I’m sure you’d be equally delighted by the other.

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10 thoughts on “The Snow Child: Eowyn Ivey

  1. Heloise says:

    I have had a lifelong aversion against circuses which is why I have been giving the Morgenstern novel a berth even though it seemed rather intriguing. The Snow Child has been on my wishlist for a while now, I guess it's time to bump it up, with all the heavy stuff I have been reading recently it will be nice to something I can just lose myself in.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Heloise! Have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? If so, and if you liked it, then do give Morgenstern a go, circuses or not. Both that and The Snow Child have a languid, slightly dreamy feel to them. I was going to say they're perfect for a summer afternoon in the garden, but on second thoughts snowy Alaska is probably more of a cosy winter book. 🙂 Recommended for any season, though!

  3. Isi says:

    I didn't know it and I think I haven't read reviews of this book, but the way you describe it makes me want to read it now! (it is very cheap, by the way. Good!).
    I love books set in Canada; I've read a few ones and all of them seem to have something special.
    I also have a copy in Spanish of The night circus, I have to read it!
    Thanks for the recommendation, Leander!

  4. Jen K says:

    This was one of my favorite reads last year – I had heard good things and immediately bought as soon as I saw it as a paperback, and read it in less than a day. I still haven't gotten around to The Night Circus and I've had to for almost a year and a half. I should really get on that.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this too, Jen. Isn't it a lovely little book? I'll be interested to hear what you think of The Night Circus once you get round to it. (It's hard though, isn't it – too many books and not enough time! I have the same problem.)

  6. Isi says:

    Leander!
    I went to the public library last Thursday and they had this book, in English!!!
    I remembered your review, so I took it out and I'm planning to read it next week in my village (I'm going to spend a few days there). They are buying a lot of new books in English and I'm extremely happy about that 🙂
    I hope to tell you my thoughts about the book soon.

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