The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur Books; 389 pages; $24.99).
Life in 1920s Alaska is harsh with long, bitterly cold winters and scarce sunlight. It can be a difficult and lonely existence. Not surprisingly, cabin fever sometimes sets in. Such is the setting in Eowyn Ivey’s rich, atmospheric debut novel, The Snow Child, a Pulitzer Prize nominee in fiction.
Alaska is a place Ms. Ivey knows well. For her, it is home; she was raised in Alaska and continues to live there. Books and stories have always been a part of Ms. Ivey’s life. In fact, Ms. Ivey was named for a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. From birth, then, Ms. Ivey’s world has revolved around books. Interestingly, she now works at an independent bookstore. More than anything, Alaska is central to Ms. Ivey’s story. That is not to say her rich characterizations are not effective or affecting. They are indeed.
Ms. Ivey introduces readers to Mabel and Jack, who are carving out an existence in homestead-era Alaska. The couple, both in their 50s, is childless and unhappy. Jack is a farmer, while Mabel is a homemaker. Neither imagines Alaska would be such a savage place. For Mabel, who comes from a life of luxury back East, life is filled with silence and darkness. At times, it becomes too much for her, and she contemplates suicide.
This is not the life Mabel once envisioned: “She had imagined the two of them working in green fields framed by mountains as tall and snowy as the Swiss Alps. The air would be clean and cold, the sky vast and blue. Side by side, sweaty and tired, they would smile at each other the way they had as young lovers.” Instead, Alaska drives Mabel and Jack apart. Deep at the heart of their distance is the stillborn death of a child years before. Mabel cannot get over her child’s death and still longs for a son or daughter of her own.
Mabel has so much love to give and no one to give her love to except Jack. Ms. Ivey contrasts Mabel’s warmth with the stark, unyielding Alaskan wilderness. I think the two are equal in both ferocity and spirit. Yet one must win in the end, and one does.
When the year’s first snow falls, Mabel has an idea. She urges Jack to go outside with her and help her build a snowman. As they work, Mabel suggests they make a little girl instead. They give her a skirt out of the snow, and add hair, mittens, and a scarf. The next morning, Jack sees a child outside: “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.” She runs and then disappears. It is an odd sight since they have no neighbors for miles.
Jack is intrigued and goes to the spot where he and Mabel made the little snow girl. The snow girl has melted. “A small, broken heap of snow” is all that remains. The mittens and the scarf have disappeared. Again and again, both Mabel and Jack see the girl. Jack inquires in town about any missing children but is told all are safe. No child is missing.
Slowly, Mabel and Jack lure the girl closer. She is like a scared animal, wary of everything and everyone. But soon, they win her over. The girl tells them her name is Faina and she lives in the wilderness with her fox. Mabel notices that Faina is strange. Faina is “like a fairy” and a “phantom.” When she brings the girl into the house for supper, it is not long before perspiration streams down Faina’s face. Ms. Ivey seems to suggest that when Faina is inside, before a fire, she begins to melt. Ms. Ivey carries this further, though. When spring comes and the snows melt, Faina disappears.
Is Faina real? Or are both Mabel and Jack suffering from cabin fever, too isolated and too cooped up over the long winter? Is the girl a way to replace their lost child? I vacillate between the two. I am so certain she is one thing when Ms. Ivey throws me for a loop and then I am undecided once again.
So is Mabel. She remembers a book of Russian fairy tales her father owned. In one story, a couple constructs a child from snow. When the child comes to life, there are repercussions for both the girl and for the couple. Of course, given that the story is a fairy tale, it ends badly. Mabel cannot get this fairy story out of her mind.
Years pass. The snow girl brings Mabel and Jack closer. They laugh together, they hold hands, they talk, they work together, and they share a kind of intimacy that before was missing. Every year, when the first snow falls, Faina returns. When the snows melt in the spring, Faina disappears.
Ms. Ivey uses a curious literary technique in The Snow Child that keeps me guessing. When Mabel, Jack, or any other character talks to someone, Ms. Ivey uses quotation marks to show the dialogue. Except where Faina is concerned. When Mabel converses with Faina and vice versa, Ms. Ivey omits the quotation marks. This is true when Faina speaks to any other character. This interests me, especially when Ms. Ivey uses quotation marks for dialogue with a horse. Her decision to tell the story in this way is deliberate and ingenious. This is another way to intrigue the reader.
The Snow Child is not a novel for everyone. If you are a reader who prefers your fiction clear-cut, then this is not the book for you. Ms. Ivey writes with hints of mystery and ambiguity. Her methods of storytelling never detract from the narrative; instead, they nicely complement Ms. Ivey’s tale. If you like The Snow Child, you will love it. But if you dislike this book, you will hate it. There is no in-between here, in my opinion.
Like an Alaskan snowdrift, The Snow Child requires unfolding the layers of the novel to get to its heart. Is Faina real or a figment of imagination? In the end, the question matters little. Ms. Ivey’s prose is subtle yet elegant; her tale is stark yet beautiful. This bookseller definitely knows her readers, and it shows.