The Snow Child: A Novel
- Eowyn Ivey
- Little, Brown
- 386 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- March 5, 2013
In the magical world of the Alaskan wilderness, is the captivating girl who frolics in the landscape real or imaginary?
Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
A little girl plays in the snow with a childless couple, but is she real?
The Russian fairy story of Snegurochka has been embroidered by writers from Alexander Ostrovsky to Raymond Briggs. It is the story of a snow man or woman who comes to life, and draws her creators into a magical world. Then she melts. In some versions, the power of love destroys her. In others she gets too close to a campfire and disappears. In this debut novel, The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey sets the tale in the wilderness of Alaska, where the elderly couple of Jack and Mabel have relocated, after the birth of a stillborn child.
One evening after a playful snowball fight, Jack carves a girl out of snow. In the morning, the couple catches sight of a tiny child running among the pines. She is dressed in the snow girl’s red hat and gloves. When she presses her nose to the window, her face is a mirror of the one Jack carved out of snow. The couple has created a daughter.
But is she real? She won’t be pinned down, and always runs away into the landscape. Her tracks are covered by morning. Nobody else believes she exists, and none of their neighbors can see her. Mabel’s friend Esther is skeptical. Winters are long in Alaska, she says. “You start seeing things you’re afraid of … or things you’ve always wished for.”
Ivey’s story builds like a snowfall, with steady confidence, until you find yourself deep in magic realism. As the story progresses, you notice that when Mabel and Jack speak with Faina, the snow child, there are no quotation marks. Is the author suggesting that the couple is imagining her? Faina visits when the snow has made the world new, more beautiful and quiet, a version of the world Jack and Mabel want to believe in.
Mabel makes clothes for Faina and draws pictures of snowflakes and wildlife. Jack goes hunting and guts wild animals. In one marvelous scene, Jack and Mabel pluck chickens, gathering red, black and yellow feathers into burlap sacks. Amid the smell of scalded feathers and half-cooked chicken, Jack holds up his feather-coated hands. In another scene Jack comes across a dead man in the snow, whose body is partially devoured by voles. The writing here is as evocative as the winter light, the story as disorienting as a landscape under heavy snow.
Eowyn Ivey, who was raised in Alaska and makes her home there, wants to tell us how people live off the land in Alaska, hunting for lynx, moose and hare. She writes convincingly about blood in the snow, gutting animals and preparing their meat.
But winter comes to an end, even in Alaska. The snow disappears into rain, and Faina vanishes into the mountains. Ugly things are uncovered. Here the story becomes an eloquent exploration of loss, like the myth of Persephone in reverse.
For the first two-thirds of The Snow Child, I willingly suspended disbelief. In fact, the ambiguities worked so well that I overlooked some minor inconsistencies. For instance, Jack and Mabel are always described as very old, even though they lost their child only a few years before we meet them.
Then something shifted. The plot took a peculiar turn. By Part 3, skepticism had taken hold and the spell broke for this reader. It felt as though Ivey had finished exploring the story to her satisfaction and had grown a little tired of writing it. I sensed the leaden hand of an overly zealous marketing department, wanting to turn The Snow Child into Twilight. Since Sarah Palin is yesterday’s news, they needed a different hook to sell the novel.
That’s the book biz, I guess: Just as we must kill beautiful animals to live off their meat, we must find a way to sell books by killing off their subtlety. Sadly, it is the weak and pandering last third of this novel that will sell it, appealing most to tweens and teens. Shrewder readers might put the book down after the first two sections.
In the end though, Eowyn Ivey draws us into the lean and wild world of the Alaskan wilderness beautifully in this novel. She loves the magical snow child she has created. Many readers will love her as well.
Amanda Holmes Duffy has edited art listings for “Goings On About Town” at The New Yorker and compiled two books, The Jane Austen Sampler and The Henry James Sampler, published by Kensington. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor, Rattapallax and most recently on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. She blogs at www.irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com.