I love modern takes on fairy tales, so this seemed like a good bet.
We’re in the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. Homesteaders from Pennsylvania Mable and Jack have set out for a new life together–they can’t have children, and they need a new scene. Their second winter in Alaska is harsh, cold, and miserable, but during one evening of lightheartedness, they build a little girl out of snow. The next morning, there’s no snow child left, but they do see a little girl wearing the same scarf and mittens. Over the years, Mable and Jack “adopt” her as their child, and there is always a tension of is-she-or-isn’t-she real?
The story is explicitly based on the Russian story of the same name, which doesn’t end well. Mabel knows it (she owns the book!), and she braces herself for eventual loss and disappointment. But the child, Faina, remains, uniting their family and their neighbors and bringing them friendship, love, and camaraderie.
I enjoyed this book and read it in less than a day. But I also have mixed feelings about it. I loved the first third–the descriptions of the cold harsh wilderness, the longing and hurt of Mabel and Jack, the cautious hope that the maybe-magical snow child was real. Really lovely.
But the almost-ending was a struggle for me. When the snow child is no longer a child, when the messiness of love and boys and birth and marriage etc, are introduced, the the fairy tale just…stops feeling like a fairy tale. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad–I suspect that Ivey wanted to push the fairy tale boundaries, so that’s fine, but it didn’t really resonate for me, and many of the details seemed arbitrary and inconsistent. (Why could Faina not tolerate the heat of a cabin in winter when she was 9, but is perfectly fine in a summer sundress in July at 16? How do Mabel and Jack spend 6+ years with this snow girl and still not understand that she’ll be JUST FINE if she goes for a walk in the snow by herself?) So the ending–not the end per se, but the denouement–was unsatisfying.
That said, wonderful descriptions of wilderness, loneliness, the forging of new and old relationships, and hope after desolation.
3.5 stars, and let’s round up to 4 because it did make me want to go live in a cabin in Alaska.