The Snow Child: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey (New York: Reagan Arthur Books, 2012. 400 pp)

Named after a character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Educated at Western Washington University and the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Ivey began her career as a reporter for the Frontiersman. Her award-winning articles have been published in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Magazine, and other publications. Currently, Ivey works at Fireside Books, an independent bookstore. The Snow Child is Ivey’s debut novel.

The Space between Reality and Fantasy 

One of my favorite movies of all time, Pan’s Labyrinth earned critical acclaim and an Academy Award for translating a fairy tale into an adult setting. With themes pondering war, politics, and a child growing up, the movie carries immense depth. Yet, my favorite motif in the film surrounds the perilous balance of reality and fantasy. As mythical creatures prance through the screen, the viewer is never certain if they are a figment of the protagonist’s imagination or a supposedly real being.

Photo by Robert Voors

In Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, the questions of reality versus fantasy weigh over the entire narrative. The novel’s protagonist’s, Jack and Mabel, are a childless elderly couple who have escaped their lives in the continental United States in order to live in the Alaska frontier of the 1920s. As the couple commences the project of transferring a homestead into a farm, their age becomes apparent:

“Mabel looked up and saw his windburned hands and frayed cuffs, the crow’s feet that spread at the corners of his downturned eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had touched that skin, and the thought ached like loneliness in her chest. Then she spotted a few strands of silver in his reddish-brown beard. When had they appeared? So he, too, was graying. Each of them fading away without the other’s notice” (10).

The Wilderness

The Alaskan wilderness is a desolate place. Dreams of a plentiful harvest are dashed on wintery Alaskan peaks. In fact, hopes of survival through their first winter focus in the sight of Jack’s rifle. Without a moose preserved in the shed, the couple faces starvation.

“When Jack told his brothers he was moving to Alaska, they envied him. God’s country, they’d said. The land of milk and honey. Moose, caribou, and bears—game so thick you won’t know what to shoot first. And the streams full of salmon, you can walk across their backs to the other side. What a different truth he found. Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle, and he had seen it in the eyes of that red fox” (61).

The Snow Child

Despite these conditions, the couple rejoices in the first snow of the year. In an act of whimsy, Jack and Mabel create a snowman (or more accurately, snow girl), fitted with mittens, a scarf, and a winter coat. Although the temperature cratered under freezing during the night, the couple discovers human tracks escaping the pile of snow, the remnants of the snow girl.

In the coming weeks, Jack and Mabel catch sight of a young girl, meandering through the woods in these harsh conditions.

 “There it was. A little figure dashed through the trees. Was that a skirt about the legs? A red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees” (47-48).

Over time, the girl befriends Jack and Mabel. Named Faina, the snow girl traps wild game in the mountains and visits the couple typically around dinnertime, arriving with gifts of berries, animal proteins, or other edibles.

When winter secedes, so too does Faina. Her wild ways seem well suited for the winter conditions that climb in altitude as summer months emerge. At first, Jack and Mabel mourn the loss of a winter friend, but upon first snow, Faina faintly knocks on the couple’s door.

The story of Faina is shrouded in mystery. Her sudden appearance mimics Mabel’s favorite Russian fairy tale, The Snow Maiden. In this folk tale, an old, childless couple builds a snowman that magically conjures into a human child.

The Tension of Reality

However, the question of her reality remains. On the one hand, her existence is confirmed by multiple sources. Fellow Alaskans find her trails; her touch is rooted; her smell is of the forest. Jack and Mabel experience Faina and consider her their own child.

Yet, portions of Faina are mysterious. The child survives the winter in a place that experienced trappers fail; she traverses snowpack for which most humans need snowshoes; in anger, she seemingly can summon alterations in the weather.

“The girl appeared and disappeared without warning, and it unnerved Jack. There was something otherworldly in her manners and appearance, her frosty lashes and cool blue stare, the way she materialized out of the forest. In ways she was clearly just a little girl, with her small frame and rare, stifled giggles, but in others she seemed composed and wise, as if she moved through the world with knowledge beyond anything Jack had encountered” (102).

Therein lies the intriguing question in The Snow Child. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Snow Child requires the reader to sit in the tension of reality and fantasy. An argument can be made for both sides of the equation. If you can live with this tension, The Snow Child is a breathtaking, evocative, and heartbreaking novel. If you need conclusion, perhaps you should read something else.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards

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