“That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” – Esther.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is inspired by a Russian fairy tale called “Snow Maiden.” It tells the story of an old married couple, Mabel and Jack, who have secluded themselves in the sparseness of 1920’s Alaska after a stillbirth. They hope to make a simple life away from the constant reminders of their tragedy. Mabel is stubbornly committed to her decision however feels utterly defeated by the unfamiliar landscape. One night before the long winter, the two build a small girl out of snow in the yard. Whether magically or not, the snow child then arrives to brighten the lives of all of the characters. This novel is a story of isolation, family, and, above all, loss.
I do commend Ivey for the enchanting imagery in the novel. The descriptions of winter gave me chills: the red fox dashing through the frost, the isolation consuming the house next to the forest, and all the characters’ subtle movements. For the most part, each chapter would switch between Jack and Mabel’s points of views, which became rhythmic and nicely reflected the seasons and paced the story. I found that for the first half of the novel I wanted to read it carefully and gently, while dog-earing pages.
“But Jack was seeking out that deep, opaque place where sound and pain and light are muted, where a man doesn’t have to put words to his despair because his numb tongue and useless lips can’t speak anything.”
The most refreshing thing about this novel was the relationship between Mabel and Jack. At first, Mabel seemed hesitant to share with Jack her feelings about their predicament and her depression. She described Jack as a silent type and as she cried he was unresponsive and cold. I was immediately disappointed by the cliché and this distanced me from the characters. Fortunately, the married couple proved to have a stronger relationship and their understanding of one another shone through. Each conflict brought by the land and the girl were not so much struggles but examples of compassion and compromise. This turned into one of the most rewarding sides of the novel.
But there was definitely something sinister about it. It wasn’t sad in the way that I wanted to feel. It wasn’t the kind I could wholly relate to. It didn’t make me stutter through pages, skimming for hope of a happy ending. The novel had an inevitable hopelessness from the very beginning. In the first chapter, we find Mabel walking on thin ice, longing for the river to crack open beneath her. Still, I felt that maybe if I went back and read the novel again that I could escape the empty sorrow. I believe this was because the ending went too quickly for me – the beginning built up a lovely pace and then suddenly it raced toward the ending as if to say, “Well you know what’s going to happen don’t you? Let’s get it over with then,” as if the story itself was passive aggressive.
I did love, however, that she kept me guessing whether the snow child was a magical being or not the entire way. And I still take with me this beautiful, terrifying image of a wild, blonde snow girl trapping a swan for dinner. But maybe it’s because everyone on the Amazon reviews said that they cried that I didn’t get that pleasure. Or maybe I’m just a sore loser when it comes to bittersweet endings.
Editor: Holly Duffy