Friday, June 7, 2013

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

I've been ogling this book for months it seems, and when else should I pick up a book with the word "snow" in the title than when temperatures reach scorching in my hometown? There is nothing like a modern take on Russian fables to take ones' mind off of mosquito bites and humidity!

Ivey's debut novel is set in her own home state of Alaska during the homesteading ventures of the 1920s. The Snow Child paints a sad portrait of the staggering loneliness that can grow between two people, despite their steadfast love for each other.

After struggling for years with the loss of their firstborn, childless Mabel and Jack leave their pasts "back East" to start a farm and live off the land. Mabel believes the hard work, and stark beauty of the Alaskan wilderness will bring them together, but Jack's pride won't bear his wife's partaking in farm work; thus, the gulf widens and the isolation of homesteading worsens the state of their marriage.

The couple build a girl-shape out of snow during the season's first snow in a rare glimpse of togetherness. When the snow-girl has disappeared the next morning and child sized tracks are found nearby, Mabel remembers an old story about a childless couple who built a snow girl that comes to life, and becomes obsessed with the idea that similar magic is at long last rewarding them. While Mabel has always grieved the loss of their baby, Jack begins to break under his own feelings of failure; the farm barely gets them through their first winter, and only then with the help of neighbors. Unsure of how to help Mabel with her sadness and growing obsession with the snow child, Jack withdraws into forcing a liveable yield out of the harsh Alaskan wilderness. No neighbors ever see hide nor hair of the child. Have Jack and Mabel imagined her out of their cabin-fever induced desperation to survive? Either way, she seems to be the only thing holding them together as man and wife, as well as in Alaska.

The little girl, Faina, seems an ethereal spirit of that very wild landscape that could have ended their homesteading. The couple learn to see the beauty of their new home through the eyes of the child they have always wanted. Faina disappears with the winters' end to return with the next season's first snow, yet despite her transience, the love they have for her seems better when paired with the pain of her leaving, than their lives before she first appeared.

"Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. It's all a mystery, and when we say any different, we're just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?"

The Snow Child is a bittersweet tale of the redemptive power of love. It's a straight forward fable based on Russian lore (there are quite a number of variations of The Snow Maiden) detailing the pain of emotional and physical isolation. Ivey's characterization of the couple is tender, even as they withdraw into themselves under the various strains. It is quite small in scope, not nearly as descriptive as you may imagine a novel about such a grandiose landscape could be, and moves swiftly through the narration with a gaze fixed upon very few characters.

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