Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
The Snow Child, a retelling of the traditional Russian folktale, grabbed me from the first page with its plot. In the 1920’s Alaska, homesteaders Jack and Mabel are facing disaster. They’re running out of money and food, haven’t had success starting up their farm, and now winter is setting in. Never being able to have children has been a huge disappointment to them and puts strain on their marriage. They are considering the possibility of giving up and going back East when one night they start to make a little snowman out side. While building, the snowman begins to look a little more like a child. The next morning, the snow child is gone! Leading away from where it lay was a path of tiny child-like footprints. Later, they see a little girl, with white-blond hair and icy eyes, near their cabin. And then things begin to happen.
Over the course of the first winter, Jack and Mabel begin to have a relationship with the child, and in the six years that follow, they build a strange kind of family around her. Every year, Faina appears with the first snow and every spring, she disappears as suddenly as she came. There is something strange and eerie about her ability to talk to animals, to manipulate the weather, to lead Jack and Mabel to the things they need when they most need them. Is she real? Or is she a figment of their imagination, thought up by two lonely people suffering from the long isolation and darkness of the Alaskan winter?
The harshness of the landscape, the ugly reality of life in the Alaskan wilderness is what pushes this fairy tale out of the realm of childhood and makes it a story for adults. The setting isn’t a sparkling winter landscape. The white snow is a backdrop for bloody doings, and when it melts, can uncover terrible things. Likewise, Faina isn’t a traditional snow princess–she is a wild, unpredictable child, who carries a knife under her skirt, who traps and kills for food, who encounters a swan and strangles it to death. In this way, the story leads back to the old, folktales of the Brothers Grimm, in which the magic is even more enthralling and persuasive because of the danger surrounding it.
Though I was drawn in right away, it took me a while to realize how good this book truly is. Is Faina (as Jack believes), a feral child, separated from her family, or is she a magical creature, as Mabel believes her to be? The question is never fully settled.
Happily ever after doesn’t necessarily apply in this novel, but there is a feeling that whatever happiness does come has been well earned. Just as there are two possible explanations for Faina’s existence, there are two possible explanations for the ending to this story. As Mabel’s sister writes in a letter from another life: “We are allowed to do that, are we not, Mabel? To invent our own endings, to choose joy over sorrow?” In Ivey’s book, the reader is not only allowed but forced to decide. It usually makes me mad when authors ask their readers to do this, but in The Snow Child, it creates endless possibilities that keep swirling around in my mind!