Monday, July 17, 2017

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I almost never read fantasy literature, and am even less likely to review it. However, I was so charmed by Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, that besides buying several copies to send to nieces and nephews, I find I want to talk to you readers about the book this morning. I had never heard of the book, nor the Russian fairytale from which it is spun, but I’m finding many of my reader friends have and have been as struck with it as I.  Part One of the book is headed by a quote from Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow:
“Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl; and perhaps she will come alive, and be a little daughter to us.”
“Husband,” says the old woman, “there’s no knowing what may be. Let us go into the yard and make a little snow girl.”

Ivey is from Alaska, and this is her debut novel. A story of a couple in their fifties who decide to move to Alaska and to farm there. It is the wife, Mabel, who lobbies strongest for the reclusion, but both seem attracted to a life distanced from others. Her husband and husband’s family own a farm in the eastern United States, so he knows farming. Her parents are educators, and are flabbergasted by their daughter’s moving into a remote unknown. This is 1920, and the growing season in Alaska is very short, tough place to homestead.

What the reader comes to discover is that Mabel is childless and her husband Jack’s family is teeming with children. “There had been the one. A tiny thing, born still and silent. Ten years past, but even now she felt herself returning to the birth…” 
Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence.
The silence and loneliness in fact lead to Mabel’s being suicidal. She even ventures onto ice that covers a deep hole in the river, daring it to break and let her float away like the maple leaf she sees floating below the surface of the ice. The growing distance between her and Jack is   highlighted when she tries to tell him that she had ventured onto too-thin ice, and he simply doesn’t hear her. Instead, on a winter snow day (after a long and dry summer and fall), there is a perfect snow–covering everything with a mantel of light and purity. Jack finds the snow is packable,  and in a moment of levity, suggests that they make a snowman. ‘“A girl. Let’s make it a little girl,” she said. “All right.”’Jack, who has some artistic talent, uses his pocketknife to craft a nose, and lips for their snow-girl—they even use cranberry juice to color the lips. Mabel finds a red scarf and mittens.

In the sunny morning there is only the base snow left, the scarf and mittens are gone. But there are fox tracks and what appear to be a child’s barefoot tracks.  Jack has already spotted a fox very close to the farm on several occasions, and fears for their chickens. Soon, both Mabel and Jack begin to see glimpses of a young girl in the woods, just a flash of red and blue, gone as quickly as it appeared. And the magical story begins. There is a girl running through the woods, and the fox is hers, raised from newborn pup by her. The magic of the story, and the beauty of the descriptions of the Alaskan landscape continue throughout this lovely tale, and easily allow the suspension of disbelief the tale requires. 

At first, when each of the couple acknowledges to the other that they are seeing a girl in the woods, they suppose it must be a girl from a neighboring farm, a girl actually lost in the woods in winter. And that they must save her. But there are few families in the area, and no children missing, and soon enough they discover that the snow-girl is quite able to fend for herself (and her fox) in the frozen woods.  Explanations are hatched or presented to explain how she can live in such conditions, and how she came to be there. Eventually she comes to them, sits with them, eats with them, but only in the winter. When springs comes, she disappears back into the woods and to higher elevations. 

I fear I’m already telling too much of the story, and Ivey tells it so well that you need to read it in her words. And read it to your children in her words. I can visualize so clearly the girl, Faina, hunting with her red fox at her side. I understand on such a deep level the couple’s wanting to keep her to them, and her understanding of why she must remain Faina of the woods. 

Despite Mabel’s rejection of almost any form of attention or sympathy, she is more-or-less forced into accepting a neighbor woman as a friend. The friendship and conversations between the two add substance to the novel. 

While this is a fairytale, it is one with many twists, twists of mystery, twists of romance. As one commentator suggests, it never goes where you expect it to go. And it is a lovely tale of Mabel’s existential awakening, that we are being-with (one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human). {Heidegger called these existentialia}

I read this a couple of weeks ago, and would not have planned to review, but it is still so much with me, so charming (and informing), so full of delight. If I had children, I would read this to them eagerly, though it is long story. A story for camping, for imagining and wondering.

No comments:

Post a Comment