Last updated on December 7, 2018
Book Review, The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
Good gawd. What a glorious book.
The story begins bleak and droning with bright cold punctured by the briefest flash of pure joy. Mabel and Jack live lives of dark loss after Mabel births a stillborn child. They move from home in Pennsylvania to a homestead in Alaska as far away from memories as possible. Jack is a farmer of sorts but older and nothing in Pennsylvania has prepared him for the hardship of coaxing a living from the Alaskan wild. And Mabel? She’s the soft child of a university literature professor who is only sure that nothing can be more difficult than living in the place where her soul is buried under a tree in the orchard. Jack works hard on the land all day and at night wonders if Mabel’s spirit will ever wake. Mabel spends the day cooking, sweeping, and wondering if the new ice on the Wolverine River will break under her weight and finally relieve her of an unbearable burden. But it’s the first snow of the season and in a rare giddy moment they both go outside and build a snow man. A short smooth snowman that Jack shapes into a snow girl. The next morning they wake with the world is still frozen but the snow girl is gone along with her hat and mittens.
Jack sees it first. A flash of red through the woods. A red fox on its heels. Then, Mabel sees it too. After a time and after days of hints both see the girl – a fairy wisp of a thing on which snowflakes land but never melt. From here the story brings the girl closer into the couple’s lives and then into the lives of friends. But questions are never resolved. Really never even asked. Might asking be too presumptuous? Is the child real? How does she survive? Where does she go each summer? Can she summon the weather? We never know. At the story’s end, all that is left are clothes in the snow, empty but still buttoned closed. Unlike Aesop, there is no moral to the story. There is no resolution, no crescendo.
It amazes me but the book doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some have said that it’s only a retelling of a favorite Russian fairy tale. I suppose it is. So is Stravinsky’s wonderful Rite of Spring but that doesn’t diminish the work. I’ve read that some find it boring and admit that there is a kind of droning and unrelenting undertone of barrenness that permeates the story but the magic of the child overwhelms the bleak landscape. Others forget that the story is a fairy tale where normal rules of physics don’t always apply. Yes, there are technical inconsistencies but I’ve never figured out how Aladdin flew his carpet either. This is no manual for homesteading the Alaskan wilderness.
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Several themes run throughout the book. There are good questions about family and community. Ownership weaves a thread through the book. Who owns the land? Who owns the girl? Death looms large and is always present. It’s wild Alaska, after all, in the early part of the last century, where a living wasn’t so much made as extracted from the life around you. Ivey avoids blood simply for blood’s sake but doesn’t shy from it either. Animals are trapped, shot, and skinned. Even the Snow Child captures and dispatches her meals with nonchalant ease. And there is the death and birth of magic and wonder. Mabel, through the loss of a child, senses her loss deeply than her husband. She is presented as an old and sad woman without hope or glint in her eye. Everything is dark. Is her inner death worse than any that the thin river ice would offer? But whatever embers she harbors inside flame instantly to life with the Snow Child. And even if we can’t hold magic –isn’t an intangible hope exactly what magic is? – just being able to imagine that it could be true can be uplifting.
Ivey has stacked her mantle with enough trophies and awards to overwhelm any writer and rightly so. The writing is perfect. Words are perfectly chosen and sentences crafted just so to lead the reader to the next. Read it first for the story and then for the prose. And then read it again.
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