Read 'The Snow Child' and enjoy yourself

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 18, 2012

“The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey. Little, Brown. $24.99.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Debut author Eowyn Ivey brings the reader an enthralling and delightfully readable novel with “The Snow Child,” inspired by the Russian folktale by the same name. The setting, well outside of Anchorage, Alaska, is home territory for the author, a state where she worked as a reporter for 10 years with the Frontiersman newspaper and now as a bookseller at Fireside Books, an independent bookstore in Palmer, Alaska.
As anyone who has read the Russian folktale knows, the basic storyline involves an elderly couple bemoaning the fact they are childless and beyond the ability to have a child, who build a snow girl in their yard. Overnight, the snow child comes to life. In a nutshell, the child lives with and for the snow, and they all live a life that would be happy ever after, except, well, you know, spring comes. The rest is gone with the rising temperatures and the sunshine.
In Ivey’s novel, we do in fact have the somewhat elderly couple, transplants to Alaska from the northeastern United States, escaping the life they had and living the hardscrabble life of new, sodbusting farmers in a very unforgiving wilderness. They deliberately have no friends, few acquaintances and almost no contact with family back home.
Once, they had a child, but it was stillborn, and they have remained childless. With winter coming, there is finally the first snowfall of the year, and, in a rare fit of fun and rambunctiousness, Jack and Mabel actually go out and play in the snowfall. They even decide to build a snow child, complete with a scarf and gloves. Guess what, reader? Come morning, the snow child is gone; well, the gloves and scarf are gone, the snow is in a disheveled heap on the ground.
At this point, Ivey’s story begins to separate somewhat from the fairy tale. Almost immediately, both Jack and Mabel begin catching fleeting glimpses of a young child, a girl, around their homestead. She is wearing the clothes from the snowchild. Neither Jack nor Mabel mentions these sightings to the other. Little gifts begin to show up on their doorstep. Eventually the two grownups come clean with each other, and begin to leave little gifts for the child. But is what they are seeing real, or is it a fantasy they have conjured up, due perhaps to cabin fever or wishful thinking?
Over time the child edges closer and is sometimes accompanied by a red fox. Finally, contact is made and later the child will actually come inside the cabin for a meal or to talk, though the door must be left open or the child appears almost to wilt from the heat. At the end of these meetings, the child, despite her young and tender age, returns to the woods. And, as the last snow melts, she is gone.
This is a pattern that continues for some years; the child, who goes by the name of Faina, appears with the first snow and leaves with the last, growing and becoming closer to Jack and Mabel over time. Mable makes her new coats and clothes as she grows, and the three become fond of each other. Nobody else has ever seen Faina and the reader must wonder again if this child is a real person or whether Jack and Mabel created a fantasy which they both somehow share.
I won’t tell you any more about the story, because I absolutely refuse to take any more of the suspense and drama away from you. Instead, let me tell you about a couple of characters. Mabel is from a relatively upper-class family, and certain things do not leave her; she still wears her dresses, her shoes are not exactly appropriate for wilderness living, and she mostly stays in the rather small cabin “keeping house,” though in truth she wouldn’t mind helping Jack on the farm if he would let her. But all Jack will let her do is bake some cakes and collect the eggs to sell in town.
Jack is in his 50s, and though he has always worked hard, clearing land and putting in crops single-handedly with only the help of one horse is the hardest work he has ever done, and his back tells him so. Jack isn’t much of a hunter, either.
When the couple does finally make some friends, they are Esther and George, who have been in the area for quite a while and have a successful farm going with the help of their three teenage sons. Esther is a real piece of work … if you remember the Monty Python song “I’m a Lumberjack …,” well, that’s Esther. Wears overalls, props her feet on the table, house is a mess, likes to take a drink when necessary or because she can, and she can shoot as well as she cooks. George and the boys farm and hunt, and they all work damn hard. And, George and Esther’s friendship will prove invaluable to Jack and Mabel, and one of their sons will change their lives.
I am always happy when I read a good first novel from a debut author, and “The Snow Child” plops down right in that category. It was a fine, satisfying, well-crafted book that developed a fairy tale into a novel for an adult. But reader, after you read “The Snow Child,” I want to hear your opinion about something. In the context of the novel, was Faina real, or not real? Real … not real?