The Snow Child is a re-telling of ‘Snegurochka’, a Russian folktale in which an old childless couple’s life rings with joy and laughter after they find the snow maiden they created one evening come to life.
Mabel and Jack are a forlorn old couple who’ve drifted apart and are struggling to survive in the wilds of Alaska. They’re 50 years old and their childlessness leaves a hole in their lives and in their relationship. One evening, the snow beckons them outside and they fashion a snow maiden from the season’s first snowfall. The next day they discover that the snow maiden has vanished and come to find their woods haunted by a little girl sporting the same mittens and scarf that the snow maiden was wearing. Is Faina, the snow maiden real or magical?
Miss Ivey eschews a clear-cut answer. There are scenes that hint of Faina’s etherealness and then there are facts that seem to shout out that Faina’s very much of this earth. To obscure this even further the reader is compelled to wonder whether Faina’s utter ease with the landscape that seems to mark her as its own is because of her other-wordly origins or just a manifestation of a child who learned the ropes of survival very early in her life.
As Faina brings a measure of joy to Mabel’s and Jack’s life, another event in which Jack breaks his back and Mabel, an English professor’s daughter learns to till the land begins healing the fissure that had sprung up between them. They come to enjoy the hard life and the tough work and also come to be at peace with the landscape itself.
From thinking that
Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle…
I expect we will soon have snow. The mountains are white and the mornings have a chill, and I look forward to its coming.
– their acceptance of the snow-land they have chosen to call home is gradual and complete.
The Snow Child is a story of love in the face of uncertainty.
Mabel and Jack are never certain about Faina’s origins:
Nothing tethered Faina to them. She could vanish, never return, and who was to say she had ever been loved by them?
The unyielding wilderness all around them could turn a summer into a farmer’s blessing or make it a year-long struggle for survival.
And yet, perhaps the uncertainty doesn’t matter, for
We are allowed to… invent our endings and choose joy over sorrows
The Snow Child is also a story of what it takes to survive on the edges of civilization. I enjoyed the vignettes of frontier living with their scenes of subsistence farming and hunting – they lend a certain vividness to the Alaskan setting.
For me, The Snow Child operates on two levels – the first, as a story of a childless couple who learns and earns “the joys and sorrows of a lifetime” to quote the book’s last line and the second, as a meditation on Alaska itself.
I have not encountered nature writings before but reading The Snow Child I am tempted to pick up Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ and perhaps venture into some Thoreau as well. I imagine a whole book full of nature meditations would be quite lovely… but for now, back to The Snow Child!
The writing like the stark landscape it describes is devoid of any embellishment – Miss Ivey deploys words with great precision, never using more than what is required. Indeed the writing seems imbued with a sense of stillness, perhaps imbibing from the rugged beauty of its setting. Miss Ivey, a life time Alaskan resident shines in her portrayal of the breath-taking terrain and its wildlife:
It wasn’t just the river otter. She once spied a gray-brown coyote slinking across a field with his mouth half open as in laughter. She watched Bohemian waxwings like twilight shadows flock from tree to tree as if some greater force orchestrated their flight. She saw a white ermine sprint past the barn with a fat vole in its mouth. And each time, Mabel felt something leap in her chest. Something hard and pure.
She was in love. Eight years she’d lived here, and at last the land had taken hold of her…
I do not really have any nits to pick – if at times I felt impatient with Mabel’s desolation, well, the story merited it. The ending is slightly surprising. And bittersweet. But it is also hopeful. Kind of like life.
Go, pick up your copy!
P.S. Isn’t the name of the author herself Eowyn Ivey sort of magical and fairytale-ish? (And yes I remember Eowyn from LOTR!)