“If an old man and woman conjured a little girl out of the snow and wilderness, what would she be to them? A daughter? A ghost?” writes Eowyn Ivey in her haunting and mesmerizing debut, “The Snow Child.” The year is 1920, and pioneers Jack and Mabel have recently abandoned their lives “back East” to start over in Alaska. This is no fairy tale: Their new home is as desolate and unforgiving as it is beautiful, and the haunted couple sinks into depression and desperation as they struggle to eke out a life in the unyielding wilderness. The appearance of a young girl in the woods evokes a flurry of emotion and questions in the couple, and one thing is certain—the child Faina, whether imagined, created, or entirely natural, will alter their lives forever. Ivey is not only a creative writer but also an emotive one, and “The Snow Child” triumphs through the sheer force of her prose. She is as adept at expressing boundless happiness as crushing sorrow. Setting this interplay of emotions against a majestic and rugged landscape proves a masterful stroke, and “The Snow Child” emerges as a work both profoundly moving and subtly mysterious.
Ivey proves her sensitivity as a writer in describing Mabel’s consuming depression at the novel’s outset. Mabel desperately wants to be a mother, but her only child died as a newborn; she has long since given up hope of ever raising a child of her own. More than that, the disappointment and constant struggles of life in Alaska have beaten her down to a state of complete hopelessness. The powerful opening chapter of Ivey’s novel finds her contemplating suicide. “[Alaska] was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all,” Ivey writes, as she displays her finesse at creating jarring descriptions with beautiful writing. Later, “Mabel organized her hours into patterns—wash, mend, cook, wash, mend, cook—and tried not to imagine floating beneath the ice like a yellow leaf.” The Alaskan wilderness, in all its harsh beauty, feels close enough to touch; Ivey’s language sets the stage for the deep and pseudo-magical contact with the natural world that will occur when Faina arrives.
Jack and Mabel eventually receive reprieve from their pain in the form of this very mysterious child. Ivey’s story is essentially a re-telling of the Russian folktale “The Snow Maiden”—a story that, in fact, Mabel is all too aware of. One of her favorite childhood books, it tells the story of a childless couple who build a daughter out of snow. They love and cherish her, but she eventually dies—in various versions from either exposure to warm weather or fire. Jack and Mabel have an eerily parallel experience: After they build a small snow child during a blizzard, they are surprised to find a young girl darting through the woods the next day. Did they create her? Did they imagine her? Has she been there all along? Their neighbors have no memory of the supposed blizzard that occurred the night she was “born;” Faina smells of snow and pine, can’t stand to be around fires, and communicates with woodland creatures; her voice is a gentle sigh that Ivey conveys without quotation marks. Yet as the novel progresses, signs of her unmistakable humanity crop up. Thus a novel that begins as a stunning exercise in magical realism slowly morphs into a tale quite grounded in reality, and it is up to the reader to determine how real—or how imaginary—various elements of the story truly are.
Ivey’s dalliance with the supernatural could have proved fatal to her writing, but by choosing to ground the story in provocative yet straightforward prose and in the subtle nuances of emotion, she avoids the pitfall of becoming too abstruse in topic or language. Faina is nearly a woodland creature herself—more sprite than child—yet as she ages, her attachment to her adoptive parents tethers her to the real world. “She seemed to him both powerful and delicate,” Jack reflects, “like a wild thing that thrives in its place but withers when stolen away.”
The vivid descriptions in Ivey’s writing thus allow great suspension of disbelief—an invaluable asset to a story that blends elements of imagination and reality so frequently. “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,” Mabel thinks, as she hopes that Faina will return to them with the first frost after her summer disappearance. Yet her hope is also an apt description of the novel itself, for the entire world of “The Snow Child” unfolds like a dream. Besides Faina’s mysterious origin and behavior, the harsh wilderness itself is an element so removed from ordinary life that it functions on a grander scale than an average setting. To fully appreciate the effect of the story requires a level of removal from expectations and preconceptions. In this beautiful, often hopeless, and moving dreamscape, it is the emotions of the characters, not the plot itself, that result in a powerful novel.
Ultimately, the question of who, or what, Faina is becomes an exercise in pointless possibilities. She is both rationally imaginary and undeniably real; Ivey proves quite adept at stretching these bounds of storytelling and seamlessly weaves together a tale of love, family, and the inescapable cruelty of life to create a touching and melancholy story. Mabel’s sister perhaps sums it up best: “I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children,” she writes in a letter, “and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” There is no harm indeed, Ivey proves, in this enchanted and gripping debut.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.