The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey is a book I had never heard of and wouldn’t have chosen to read if it weren’t for my book club. In fact, after reading the description, I was dreading it:
“Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.”
Ugh, four hundred pages of a snowgirl/fairy tale book. My plan was to read the first twenty pages or so, get frustrated with it, and stop. Since my book club is more about meeting up with old friends than critical discussion, it’s better to show up than to read the book. But once I picked it up, it was much more realistic than I was expecting, and I found myself getting into it. The book sucks you immediately into Mabel’s isolated, sad, and lonely life. Jack, her husband, is the only human being for miles, but he is outside almost all day trying to farm and they barely talk to each other. Ivey paints a very realistic portrait of a despairing couple in a cold, dark place. I became so relieved to see glimpses of a potentially happier life for the two: a moment when they connect, or becoming friends with their closest “neighbors.”
There is still a fairy tale snowchild–the part of the book’s description that turned me off so much in the beginning. Faina is the young girl who begins to appear around Jack and Mabel’s cabin. This aspect of the story did not bother me nearly as much as I was expecting. Faina balances a thin line between real child and fairy tale, and there are times when you wonder what she really is. I was fascinated that from Mabel’s perspective, Faina was a fairy tale, but Jack saw her only as a little girl. If they had talked more often and earlier to each other, they would not have had such disparate views. Either way, she is a strong, independent character, and her presence allows Jack and Mabel to have a kind of family they were never expecting.
I spent most of the book immersed in Jack and Mabel’s growing relationships: with each other, with the land, with their neighbors, and with Faina. I had some interest in finding out what Faina would turn out to be and what would happen to her. Without getting into spoilers, there is what you could call a lack of closure in the end, which bothered some of my book club friends. I don’t think it bothered me as much, but the ending was probably my least favorite part of the book.
In the end, this was a happy surprise. I do like being forced to read books I would not have otherwise read–especially when they’re better than expected.
There were many points throughout the book where I thought Faina would disappear or die. Her fox is killed, she sleeps with a boy, she stays in the summer after the snow melts. Yet Faina only loses herself once she gives birth to a child. I don’t know if the author was trying to say anything with this, but it brought to me the sacrifices women often make to have children.
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