Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Snow Child

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” 

One of the beautiful things about fairy tales is their continued relevance in our modern world.  Though we may cast it in a new shape to suit our present times, the essence and beauty of the story remains and connects us to generations past.  In her debut novel, journalist and bookseller Eowyn Ivey takes an obscure Russian fairy tale and sets it in the harsh and beautiful landscape of her native Alaska.  The Snow Child would go on to garner much praise and was even a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

The Plot:

Set in the Alaskan wilderness of 1920, The Snow Child tells the story of Jack and Mable who have newly arrived from the milder climate of Pennsylvania to homesteadThe backbreaking work of the farm, the depression and loneliness of the long winter nights, and the memory of a lost child all combine to push their relationship to the breaking point.  In a brief moment of levity, Jack and Mable play in the first snowfall and build a snow child.  The next morning, the snow child is gone, and a little blond haired girl appears on the edge of the forest.

The girl (named Faina) soon becomes a regular visitor, and Jack and Mable begin to have differing views of her origins.  Mable has an unshakable belief that Faina is the embodiment of a fairy tale her father read to her long ago.  Jack discovers information that convinces him that her tragic past is all too real.  As time passes and Faina appears and disappears with the snow, Jack and Mable come to love her as their own.  But life in Alaska is harsh, and not even the snow maiden is immune to the change of the seasons.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I'm not entirely sure how this book showed up on my radar, but there was something about it that made me want to read it.  Maybe it was the fact that the author's name was Eowyn (you know her parents had to be pretty awesome people).  Maybe it was the idea of a story set against the harsh Alaskan wilderness that is a complete mystery to this Southern girl.  Maybe it was the magical realism that the plot promised.  Whatever the reason, I soon found myself curling up and losing myself within the pages of this delightful little book.

There is a lot that Ivey gets right in this book.  Her portrayal of sadness, loneliness, and disconnect are beautifully portrayed through Jack and Mable.  Throughout the entire novel there is a sad and forlorn tone that somehow makes it easier to connect to the couple.  Their pain is stark and real, and their inability to talk about it with each other leads their marriage onto thin ice (literally in Mable's case).  It is only when they allow themselves to open up to the people and beauty around them that they can begin to reconnect to one another.  The character of Faina serves as a tool to draw out the characters of Jack and Mable.  We are never really allowed to connect with her and she remains this mysterious being on the edge (and yet at the center) of the story.  We are never really sure if she is the real child that Jack believes her to be, or the fairy child the Mable knows her to be.

The other thing that Ivey does really well throughout this novel is painting the picture of her home.  She is able to bring Alaska to life in all of its raw, powerful glory. “She looked directly up into the northern lights and she wondered if those cold-burning specters might not draw her breath, her very soul, out of her chest and into the stars.”  Whether it is the gentle spring evening or the harsh winter night, we are left in no doubt that nature is the true master here.  It is only when Mable and Jack learn to work together that they can truly create a home out of the wilderness.

Having said all of this, The Snow Child is not a perfect book.  I think my biggest disappointment was in the ending.  After the build up of Faina's mysterious existence, her demise was a bit of a let down.  I was left somewhat confused by the end and wondered why she melted away outside in the snow rather than in the height of summer.  Also, some of the praise for the book compares her writing to that of Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and while it is not bad, it isn't THAT good.

While this isn't a literary masterpiece, it is still a wonderful read.  It is magical and brutal at the same time, and though I found the ending disappointing, I still enjoyed it overall.  The tragic, unspoken pain of Jack and Mable's relationship and the wonderful description's of Alaska's stark beauty bring a lot to this story.  A nice debut for Eowyn Ivey.

Note: If you like re-tellings of classic fairy tales or myths, I highly recommend C. S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces".  It is an incredible recreation of the Cupid/Psyche myth that is at once powerful and convicting.  You will get the most out of it if you read his nonfiction book "The Four Loves" first.               

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