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Enchanting and mystical
I am a big fan of fairy tales and folklore in the vein of the Brothers Grimm. This tale has been told over the centuries with variations from country to country. But this current retelling, which is based in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1920's, tugged at me because I grew up in Alaska. The author captures the era and landscape vividly, and the story of the childless couple who create a snow child from a snowman feels fresh and new. Mabel and Jack's tale of longing and love will whisk you away to a beautiful, barren, faraway place and leave you pondering the power of our mind's capacity to fill the voids in our lives. Perfect for curling up next to the fire on a cold winters day and reading in one sitting.
The Snow Child
On the surface, the debut novel, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey reminds me of the popular book series, Little House on the Prairie only set in Alaska during the 1920’s homestead-era instead of the settling into prairie during the 1880’s. The novel takes place near the Wolverine River in Alaska during the time the federal government was looking for people to homestead along the territory’s new train route, the Alaska Railroad. Believed by many to be God’s Country, Alaska was considered “the land of milk and honey, moose, caribou, bears….and streams so full of salmon a man could walk across their backs to the other side.”
retelling of a Russian fairy tale
Ivey is inspired by an actual pamphlet, "Alaska, Our Newest Homeland," that was distributed throughout the Midwest, a campaign that lured about 100 settlers, including the fictional couple in the novel, Jack and Mabel. Both are in their early 50’s. They have decided to leave Pennsylvania to forge a new life in Alaska. Jack is a farmer. His family has owned a farm along the Allegheny River for generations growing mainly apples and hay. He sells his share in the farm partly because Mabel suggested it, partly because it is a dream he always had. They leave Pennsylvania looking for a fresh start in Alaska, chasing a dream that had almost blown away and now that they are going, has a good chance of failure.
Jack brings farming experience, his tools and his doubts to Alaska. Mabel brings her “dishes, pans and as many books as they could hold.” Both bring a cartful of invisible baggage: heartache, sadness, and guilt about their stillborn child, as well as repressed anger and resentment festering in their marriage. When the novel begins the couple barely speaks to each other and Mabel is ready to give up completely and the novel would have ended before it began. Survival is a key theme in the novel; will Mabel and Jack be able to survive in Alaska? Will the marriage survive? Components so vital to a working relationship, and often so elusive, such as honesty, forgivingness, acceptance, and ego are artfully addressed in the novel, not specifically articulated, but woven between the chapters. It’s amazing to me that a comparison can be made between surviving in Alaska and surviving a marriage; but I believe it is. An author has all sorts of choices to make with each new chapter and Ivey consistently seems to be drawn to the theme of marriage, the intimate relationship between two people who can be both so close and so distant, so in love with each other and also so hurt and confused.
When Jack and Mabel share a Thanksgiving meal with the Benson family life begins to change. Ivey writes that “It was as if Mabel had fallen through a hold into another world.“ Mabel sees that though the Benson’s cabin is cluttered with animal skulls, dried wild flowers, and smells strongly of cabbage and sour wild cranberries it is also filled with laughter and love. Stomachs are filled, hearts are warmed and a friendship blooms in the midst of the snowcapped mountains, moonshine and endless meals of moose steaks.
Bur, it is Jack’s first sight of blue and red dashing through the trees that mark the start of the mystery, a beautiful fairytale about a wilderness pixie, a snow child, and the people who come to love her. Questions begin to swirl about the child, where did she come from, where does she live? is she real?
While Ivey’s novel is about life on the frontier and it is excellent retelling of a fairytale, it is so much more. As we read we have to ask ourselves, can Jack and Mable, or any adult for that matter, learn anything about our own lives from a fairytale?
THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey is simply a retelling of a Russian fairy tale. It doesn’t live up to the many reviews of it that I read. The book is full of unanswered questions.
How is it that someone who struggles with fantasy and more so with sci-fi can embrace fairy-tales so willingly? There may be a fine line between the two but the best way I have seen the differences described is that fairy-tales are handed down stories, folklore, and that fantasy is the product of one person's imagination.
Regardless of where you put The Snow Child in genre, it is magical. It's a hard book to talk about without spoiling the whole for the next reader. The author, Eowyn Ivy, states that it is based on a Russian tale, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden, about an older couple unable to have children of their own and are saddened by this. One day they build a snow child, a little girl who comes to life. And there you have the premise of The Snow Child which takes place in 1920's wilderness Alaska. The childless couple, Mabel and Jack, find themselves in Alaska when the happiness of family and laughter of children, which Mabel describes as noise, becomes to much for her. You might describe this as running away. Mabel soon finds out that the harsh realities of life in Alaska may be worse then what she has left behind in Pennsylvania. Farming the land is hard, supplies are hard to get, they know little of how to exist in this foreign place yet there is a determination to do so. Add to this the long light of short summers and the dreary darkness, cold and snow of long winters and you can feel their despair. At the first snow, Mabel surprises Jack with lost playfulness when she starts a snow ball fight. This scene turns out to be one of the best in the book for me.
The rest of the fairy-tale is there but best to read for yourself. I've never liked the cold or tons of snow but through Ivey's eyes, she has challenged me to see what she loves about her life and home in Alaska.
A fairy-tale for adults, The Snow Child is subtle, thought-provoking and delightful storytelling.
This was an enchanting, magical story. Don't miss it!
Definitely sets the scene of Alaska Wilderness. Not yet finished with the book, but love it so far.
The Snow Child
From the very start I was absorbed into the Alaskan landscape with wonderful images painted by the author. Her descriptions of nature made me homesick for the New England of my own childhood. The characters came alive in my mind and are still with me. I loved this book!