The Snow Child: A Novel
by Eowyn Ivey
Every once in a while a book comes along that moves you and stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. This is one of those stories.
It is 1922, and Jack and Mabel have fled their comfortable Pennsylvania home to settle in the Alaskan wilderness to homestead. By putting thousands of miles between themselves and the heartbreak – a stillborn baby and the loss of any chance for more children – that threatens to undo them, they hope to start over and find contentment, if not actual happiness, in the hard work of farming in an untamed land. Eking out an existence is even more trying than they imagined, however, and as the story opens, Mabel is nearly overcome by despair.
The first snow of winter arrives, and in a moment of playfulness, Jack and Mabel build a snowman in their yard – actually, a snow girl, lovingly adorned with straw hair, red mittens and scarf, and lips reddened by berries. The next morning, there is only a pile of snow where the snow girl had been; the red mittens and scarf are gone, and there are child-sized boot prints leading away from the pile of snow, though no tracks lead into the yard or to the snow pile.
Soon, a strange little girl begins appearing at the edge of the woods on the couple’s property. With wide blue eyes and white-blonde hair, she flits through the woods like a sprite, sometimes accompanied by a red fox, venturing nearer and nearer the couple. Eventually she comes right up to their cabin, and they welcome her inside and feed her. She calls herself Faina, and she has an otherworldly quality to her – indeed, she seems to be almost magical. Jack and Mabel, who have longed for a child for so long, embrace this strange, lovely girl, who, over the years, comes and goes, never staying long, and always disappearing with the end of the snow, only to reappear the following winter. For years, nobody else sees the girl nor any evidence of her existence, and Jack and Mabel’s kindly neighbors fear that Mabel’s grief and weak constitution are playing on her imagination.
Faina grows from little girl to young woman, and over the years, she becomes more and more like Jack and Mabel’s own daughter. The more deeply they love her, the more afraid they become. Mabel is reminded again and again of a Russian fairy tale her father read to her when she was a child – a tale of an old man and an old woman who long for a child, and build one out of snow. In the fairy tale, the snow child comes to life, but the story doesn’t end well.
A beautifully wrought story, The Snow Child, based on a character, Snegurochka, from Russian folklore, is set against the gorgeous and often ominous backdrop of an Alaskan wilderness, so vividly depicted that every scene springs to life, and you can almost feel the cold wind and smell the spruce trees. A debut novel about love and loss and magic and a marriage that endures, this story won’t soon leave me. I hope Ivey writes more!