The Snow Child is a fairy tale, a beautifully written, poignant fairy tale that is tinged with sadness and wonder.
The novel is set in Alaska (where Ivey herself lives) and the care with which she describes the landscape exposes a deep love she must have for the land. It made me want to visit such a place, a landscape of snow in winter, running brooks in summer and wild northern hemisphere animals.
The main characters, Jack and Mabel, are a couple in their 50s who decide to go to Alaska to farm, moving away from all family and friends. Mabel had had still-born child and she couldn’t stand the pity and the stares anymore. She had hoped she and Jack would work the land together and bond as a couple, but two years down the line, she sits at home all day in the log cabin while he works in the fields. She drowns in loneliness and longing for her dead baby, who she never saw. Her depression and grief are so deep she is virtually incapacitated, yet she leaves the home to commit suicide. The ice won’t break beneath her when she walks onto the stream, however, and she goes home, as dark inside as the winter sky.
Then it begins to snow and Mabel is entranced by the snow, she twirls gazing up at the snowflakes and, in a moment of mischievousness she throws a snowball at Jack. They laugh and play, then decide to build a snow girl, which they clothe with a red scarf and mittens. In the morning, the scarf and mittens are gone. Mabel is reminded of a story book she had when she was young, which told the Russian tale of the snow child who came alive from a snowman and then melted when she got too close to the fire.
Then, mysteriously, Mabel sees a glimpse of a little girl, blonde-haired, running through the forest, red scarf around her neck. If, like me, you enjoy fairy tales, the story becomes a joy to read as the little girl appears at their cottage one day – a wild snow child, with white hair and delicate features. She appears only when it is winter and disappears when summer comes. Ivey writes of her so delicately that as a reader, you don’t know whether the girl is real or not. Is she a figment of Mabel’s imagination? A result, perhaps, of cabin fever and depression? Is this novel to be fantasy? She is real to Mabel and Jack – her name is Faina; she sits at their table and shares their food, gets warm. But she always leaves, running into the cold woods and disappearing.
Then, just when I thought she was purely a product of Mabel’s desperately sad mind, Faina takes Jack deep into the woods and shows him her dead father – frozen solid, being eaten by voles. He drank himself to death and she has learned to look after herself, living off the land, killing animals for food and pelts. Yet she has an unearthly quality about her – she runs effortlessly through the snow, hardly denting the surface of it, she craves the cold, snowflakes don’t melt on her skin, she has a fox as a friend. She is ethereal.
Faina brings such joy into Mabel and Jack’s lives that they accept her coming and going, her refusal to live with them, and her feralness. They grow closer as a couple, the deep love they have emerges again. Yet, no one else ever sees Faina, and their neighbours and close friends don’t believe that she exists.
Up to this stage, I was so entranced by the story and the beauty of the setting that I couldn’t put the book down (well, the Kindle), and in fact I never wanted to through the whole book, however, the utter charm of the novel dwindled slightly when Faina became real to others (and the reader). I suppose that Ivey had to carry the plot along and do something with her characters, round off the story somehow, but I was little disappointed – but that was only a little bit and it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. The beauty and enchantment of the story carries on right till the end with a sadness that lingers throughout the writing – for, if the Snow Child is to be like the original fairy tale, there will be loss.
The book probably could have done with a bit of editing to tie up loose ends – for example, Jack and Mabel are described as an old couple, in their fifties, yet they had only recently lost a baby. But these are quibbles that shouldn’t stop anyone from wanting to read the book. The cynical side of me sometimes poo-pooed the fact that at one stage I was worried that Faina might well melt in front of the fire, but I shut that horrid self away and let myself enjoy the tale without judging.
A journalist based in Alaska, this is Ivey’s first novel and she acknowledges that she based it on Arthur Ransome’s tale, Little Daughter of the Snow’. This is perhaps why the story was so familiar to me and why it made me feel like I had lived in another world for a couple of days.