Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Winter's Tale

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

“Like many fairy tales, there are many different ways it is told, but it always begins the same. An old man and an old woman live happily in their small cottage in the forest, but for one sorrow: they have no children of their own. One winter’s day, they build a girl of snow.”

The quote above is about the Russian fairy tale that is the basis of Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child. Set in Wolverine River, Alaska, shortly after WWI, a middle-aged couple is struggling to get their footing as homesteaders. Mable and Jack fled Pennsylvania in an attempt to escape their enduring sorrow over the stillbirth of their only child ten years prior. The couple is loving, but lonely on their own, their fondest wish having never been fulfilled.

One night, in an unusual fit of whimsy, the two fashion a snow girl, detailed down to the berry juice that stains her lips and a hand-knit scarf and mittens. The next morning, the sculpture is reduced to a lump of snow; the scarf and mittens are nowhere to be found. But over the next several days, both Jack and Mable spot a small, blonde girl at the edge of the woods near their home, on her own in the harsh environment. They see footprints in the snow. No one seems to know of a child in the area. No one seems to believe in a child in the area. But eventually Jack and Mable forge a relationship with this almost feral and quite possibly otherworldly child.

And that is the beginning of an exquisite and truly magical tale. Gently, gently the tale expands. An Alaskan herself, Ivey brings her landscape to life, in all its wintery beauty. Her use of language is likewise beautiful. Her characters are understated. Their lives are hard. But she takes the time to allow them to develop and show all of their subtle colors. New friends bring new life to this damaged couple, and do much to lighten and enliven the tale. The story unfolds in unexpected directions, and I kept changing my mind about whether I was reading realism or magical realism. I never knew how the tale would end. There was so much potential for both joy and tragedy. Ultimately, The Snow Child was enchanting from start to finish.

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