After its release in 2012, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey has won a bevy of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Debut (2013), and a GoodReads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction (2012), among many others. This modern fairy tale is as haunting as it is beautiful. Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books | Paperback | 2012 | 390 pp
The Snow Child is based on a common story in Russian lore. It is as common in Russia as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty is to English speakers. But our story takes place in Alaska in the early 1900s, only a short skip across the pond to Mother Russia.
Jack and Mabel, an aging couple in their fifties, gave up their lives and moved to Alaska to start over and take advantage of a government offer to homestead along the railroad. They never had children save the one which was stillborn years prior. This move was a chance for a fresh start, but things weren’t going well. They were lonely and the first year was a financial struggle.
When things seemed at their worst, Jack and Mabel surprised each other one evening with an impromptu snowball fight during the first snow of the winter. Both smiling for the first time, they decide to build a snowman which quickly turned into a snowgirl, complete with blond hair, red lips, a carved face, mittens and a scarf. The next day, the snowgirl was gone, but Jack swore he glimpsed a young girl running through the trees with a red fox by her side.
Faina eventually makes her presence known and she comes to Jack and Mabel day after day, bringing gifts and, most importantly, bringing joy. But she would never stay the night. She was always too hot inside the house, and she needed to be outside. At first, they tried to force her. Jack and Mabel were terrified that the girl would succumb to the harsh elements of the Alaskan terrain. But Faina was too strong willed.
Mabel recalled a story that her father would read to her as a child. It was a Russian tale about a lonely old couple in the woods who made a snow child, and that child turned into a real child. But it always had a tragic end. Mabel began to believe in the magic of this child and she saw it for herself: Faina walked on top of the snow, snowflakes would land on her without melting, she was terrified of fire, she disappeared in the spring and would return in the winter.
“She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable? You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers.”
Because Mabel is aware of the tragic end to the original fairy tale, she and the reader are haunted by the possible outcome. Season after season, we are thrilled for the joy brought to the couple, and for the prosperity that comes along with it. But at the same time, a great anticipation is felt. We know what is coming, but we don’t know how or why. And we don’t know what that loss would do to Jack and Mabel who have fallen in love with Faina and who now consider her their daughter.
The writing is fanciful and the world is transformed from a land fraught with peril to a magical ice kingdom of wonders. The moments with Faina felt dreamlike and the dialogue lacked quotations whenever she was around (regular dialogue persisted in her absence). This was perceived initially as a possible dream, but once the neighbors were involved, proving that Faina did exist, it continued. Faina’s magic seeped out straight from the pages.
A beautiful fairy tale that both delights and haunts, The Snow Child shouldn’t be missed.