Mabel and Jack, both nearing 50, have come to Alaska as homesteaders in the 1920s. The back-breaking work of scratching out a living from the rocky, unyielding land keeps Jack outside all day, while Mabel sits alone in the cabin, reflecting on what brought them there, including the memory of a stillborn baby that would have been their only child.
Author Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska, and continues to live there. This is her first novel. The descriptions of the wilderness and the wildlife that inhabit it give a great sense of immediacy. It isn’t hard to imagine yearning for the comfort of the wood stove after a long trek outside in blustery snow.
In a rare, light-hearted moment, Jack and Mabel fashion what starts as a snowman into a small snow girl with scarf, mittens and a beautiful sculptured face. The next morning Jack catches glimpses of a small figure, scarf flying and wearing mittens, running into the forest. Small footprints lead away from the location they built the snow child. Yes, the books deals in magical realism, and, before this book, I’ve never been much for it.
Matthew Strecher, author and teacher, describes it as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
In the hands of Ivey, the story is entrancing. If the reader can accept the idea, a beautiful story awaits.
Jack and Mabel soon become friendly with the their nearest neighbors, the Bensons, the large family. Rough-hewn George, down-to-earth wife Esther and their three boisterous sons provide the sense of a caring family. The budding friendship is more than healthy for the newcomers.
Jack continues to see the almost ethereal child. Eventually, she comes to them and becomes part of their lives. Her name is Faina, and she appears only when she wishes, refuses to stay as long as they hope, and hunts, lives, and survives in the wild by herself. Her companion is a small red fox who hunts with her.
Soon Mabel is sewing a warm coat for her and trying to persuade her to spend longer periods of time with them. Mabel recollects an old fairy tale she had loved as a child, where a small girl appeared to an old couple and became almost like family.
Eowen Ivey’s characterization of the snow child is so complete that the reader comes to know Faina’s long, straight white-blond hair, the way snowflakes settle on her pale lashes, her marten hat and fur-trimmed coat and her reluctance to spend time away from the outdoors that she regards as home. Just as authentic is the wildlife, from an immense moose that Jack shoots, to the tiny fox by Faina’s side.
Faina’s attachment to both Mabel and Jack brings a contented happiness to all. Eventually she lets herself be embraced by the Benson family, too. The last third of the novel moves in a different but enthralling direction with deep implications for all the characters.
This part is an emotional roller coaster, soaring between fulfillment and tragic loss. At the very end, Jack “took hold of Mabel’s hand, and when she turned to him, he saw in her eyes the joy and sorrow of a lifetime.” A fascinating, unusual and remarkable novel!
“The Snow Child” is on the short list for a major prize for first novel. The Christian Science Monitor has selected it as one of six books to read in 2012.