Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

            This book is delightful. The Snow Child as a title and concept comes from a Russian fairy tale, but Ivey’s novel is not a simple remake of old folklore. Just like the Alaskan snow, the snow-child legend swirls and lands in the story, only to swirl again and land somewhere else—somewhere completely unexpected.
            As in the Russian tale, there is an old couple who desire a child, and they make a little girl out of snow. But the details of the circumstance are so bare and raw and wild that there is no way (in the reader’s mind) that this story could really be kin to the fairy tale.
Alaska homesteading in the 1920s was no joke. (I was just hearing stories today from a dear lady friend about their homestead in the 1980s and having no running water for over five years…) The 1920s were a whole different ballgame. The land is wild and untamed. The job options were a) farming or b) mining. Both could cripple a young man and send him back east after a few years of making a go of it. If you were really resourceful and didn’t mind the vagrant lifestyle, you could even try option c) trapping. But that meant even fewer comforts and more dangers than were already plentiful in a homestead or mining town.
One of my favorite parts about this book is the descriptions of Alaska. Being an Alaskan, born and raised, I genuinely appreciate how Mabel (one of the protagonists) first struggles with the harshness, cold, and darkness of winter…and then the light, warmth, and buggy-ness of summer… and then falls in love with it. There were many times when I read a paragraph and thought to myself, Yes! That’s exactly right. Ivey conjures up the very images that I dwell on when I’m sitting in my dark living room in Northern Virginia, hovering over the air conditioner and trying to imagine that I’m back home. The tart smell of wild cranberries at dusk in autumn. The unearthly colors of a winter sunset. The first smell of dirt during breakup. Living in Alaska has gotten easier over the last 100 years, but the land has not changed a bit. I can attest, what Ivey writes is what it is like. It is wild, and cares nothing for you. And because of that, you love it all the more.
But the story is also delightful and drew me on to finish the book quickly. The big question: Is Faina (Fah-ee-nah) a snow fairy—like the one in Mabel’s childhood fairy book? Or is Faina a little orphan girl, whose father Jack buried (Jack being Mabel’s husband) and who has an uncanny ability to survive in the wild? It’s a tricky question, and part of the answer is in the question: what do Jack and Mabel need her to be?
By the last part of the book, I was fully convinced that Faina is a real person, with real origin and skill, and a very unusual life. She comes to a sad and mysterious end—leaving the question of death or disappearance open for the reader’s musing. I personally prefer the explanation that, in her illness, she deliriously wandered into the woods in the snowstorm and died there—this also completing her life’s resemblance to the snow-child of the fairytale. But as I said, the explanation is left to the reader’s imagination. The story is sad and hard in many parts, but there is much beauty and growth and change as well.

Joy and sorrow—they are the themes of the book, and they are inextricably intertwined. They are in the land, in the long winters and the wild animals and the necessity of killing for survival, and also in the bountiful yield of the land in the summer. They are in Jack and Mabel, in a stillborn child lost long ago, and also in the revitalizing of their marriage and their joy in one another, and in their discovering that they do have a child where they least expected. And they are in Faina, who thrives in her strength and love of nature and winter, and submits to the sorrow of what one might call “captivity”. Though the submission was not sorrowful to her; she made her own decision confidently and with love. The ending, too, is full of both sorrow and joy, making it a great book, well worthy of a read. 

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