“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”
I finally bought The Snow Child after reading Ana’s review and remembering that my boyfriend’s cousin & I had a discussion about it last time I saw her. After I started reading it (on the bus one morning, just as it started snowing) I mentioned it to a few people at work, and “I LOVED that book!” was the standard response. Then last week, before I had even had a chance to suggest it, everyone asked if we could read it for our next staff and 6th form reading group. That night, I went home and read the last 200 pages in one sitting. Now I’m finished, I can’t help but agree with all I’ve heard.
The Snow Child tells the story, loosely based upon an old Russian fairy tale, of Jack and Mabel, a couple who have moved to the Alaskan wilderness after being unable to conceive and, tragically, losing their only baby many years before. They set up a remote homestead with the intention of living a simple, isolated life, retreating from their old life as a way of dealing with their grief. Jack works the land and Mabel bakes and keeps their home, her life punctuated by despair and depression. One day, in a frivilous moment, they build a snow girl, wrapping it in Mabel’s mittens and hat. The next day, the snow girl is gone and the mittens and hat have disappeared. Mabel and Jack then start spotting a blonde-haired girl in the trees, accompanied by a red fox. Who is she, and where did she come from? The girl, who calls herself Faina, ends up becoming a part of Mabel and Jack’s life, appearing during winter, disappearing during summer. As Jack and Mabel grow to love her as their own, the mystery of who Faina really is and where she came from deepens.
As the novel opens, you can feel Jack and Mabel’s despair, reflected in the extreme environment they have chosen to escape to, as well as their wonder at the world and their eventual hope and love when Faina appears. Mabel’s grief is palpable, as is her isolation in the cabin as Jack attempts, mostly in vain at first, to carve a reasonable living from the land. The beginning of the novel describes beautifully the growing sense of despair, bourne of an inhabitable climate and the eternal residue of grief.
Ivey evokes the Alaskan wilderness so beautifully and vividly: the extreme cold, isolation and struggle simply to survive in such extreme conditions. I am a total sucker for winter settings, both in life and in fiction, and this is one of the most beautifully created I have come across. The extreme landscape, accompanied by heavy snow, is the perfect setting a novel that is inspired so heavily by a fairy tale. But the rewards of such an environment are also evident. Esther, who, along with her husband George and son Garratt, become good friends with Mabel and Jack, says to Mabel when they first start spending time together that she would never leave, despite the challenges. When Jack becomes injured and Mabel starts tending the land in his place, she finds satisfaction and a sense of purpose in such work. Although Faina disappears in the summer, Mabel and Jack build their farm on their land and tend to their crops and build a life for themselves in the wilderness.
Faina is presented as a magical, mystical being and is used as a vehicle for Ivey to explore other characters’ feelings, for example her impact on Jack and Mabel and adds to their development as characters. The best scenes are the ambiguous ones, where you are not quite sure whether what is being described is real or imaginary. There is a sense of wonder and mystery in these parts, which is perfectly encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of this entry. Finding magic amongst the trees is a fundamental part of being alive, and reality is sometimes just as fantastical as a fairy tale.