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.