Review: The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

This book was a Pullitzer Prize nominee in 2013, which surprised a lot of people, not least the author.  Set in 1920s Alaska, The Snow Child is a enchanting story, a mixture of retold fairytale and wilderness survival tale.  Jack and Mabel are a middle-aged married couple who have settled in the wilds of Alaska, fleeing their own grief at the stillbirth of their only child many years before.  Mabel wants to carve a new life in the wilderness but the wind howls, the snow falls and in the silences, she and Jack struggle to reach out to each other in the darkness.

The wilds of the winter are beautifully drawn, with a sky that ‘holds its breath’ with the naked trees surrounding the cabin so that Jack and Mabel seem to be the only two people in the world.  The pressure and claustrophobia of this life is getting to the unhappy Mabel, and Jack is dragged to desperation trying to glean a life for them from the land.  One evening the two of them play in the snow, building a snow child, a girl beside their cabin.  In the morning, the snowman is gone, as are the scarf and mittens they used to decorate it.  But they begin to glimpse something scampering past their cabin, pale and barely leaving a trace.

Ivey cites her source clearly; Mabel’s father had been a college professor and Mabel remembers being told the fairy tale of the Snow Child, she even sends to her family ‘back East’ for the original fairy tale, written in Russian.  As with many fairy-tales in their original form, it is a tale with a dark message at its core; the childless couple builds themselves a child from snow and when the spring comes, they lose her.  Ivey even manages to work in Arthur Ransome’s study of Russian folktales into her novel as Mabel and Jack’s story comes to mirror the legend.

Eowyn Ivey

As the child comes closer and closer to the cabin, Ivey manages to dance the line of uncertainty.  In the opening pages of the books, Mabel has contemplated suicide.  Their kindly neighbour suggests that she may be suffering from cabin fever – something that is a metaphor to us but was a real risk for settlers in Alaska.  Jack is always reticent about admitting to have seen the child.  Is she real?  Or she is a mere hallucination built from their frustrated desires?  The reader wonders about the child’s true nature just as Jack and Mabel do.  There is something dark about the story, Jack feels an animal-like fear as he tries to follow the girl when she leaves them again and so he turns for home.  Mabel struggles with dark dreams full of fear and dead babies.  Their love for the child grows quickly, they hold their breath as she joins them at the kitchen table and smile as the little girl joins in their prayers.

The darkness never leaves, even as the unhappiness that has haunted Jack and Mabel for so long begins to abate.  Mabel’s sister writes that unhappy endings can be rewritten, that we can ‘choose joy over sorrow’ and Mabel clings to this.  There is an ambiguity to The Snow Child borne from its silences, the silences which were once unbearable but which the couple grow accustomed to and even to love.  The Snow Child is a fireside tale, to be hugged as the nights grow short.  It tells the story of the happiness that can step forth from the darkness and cold.  These is a wonderous feat of story-telling and so very, very filled with love right up until the final page.

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The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Published by Hachette UK on February 1st 2012
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 300
ISBN: 9780316192958

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