Hazel McHaffie

The Snow Child

It was billed as ‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska’, and as ‘an instant classic’. It was recommended by the Richard and Judy Bookclub and received enthusiastic reviews. It’s beenĀ on my to-read list for ages. It’s Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, and it intrigued me enough to become my first read of 2013.

The Snow ChildPart fairytale (based on a Russian folk story ‘Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden‘ and Arthur Ransome’s ‘Little Daughter of the Snow‘), part family saga about love and loss and the craving for motherhood, it was certainly different.

Jack and Mabel have left behind a comfortable life in Pennsylvania and are desperately trying to make a fresh start for themselves in a simple homestead in the raw Alaskan wilderness. But as winter approaches Jack struggles to clear the land and make ends meet, and Mabel mourns the child she lost ten years before when it was stillborn. Life is hard and the new environment is not bringing them closer or offering them hope of better times.

On the day of the first snow fall, in a rare moment of childish spontaneity and tenderness, the couple play outside and build a snowgirl together. The next morning, all trace of her has gone but small footprints lead into the forest. They begin to catch glimpses of a child wearing the scarf and mittens they’d used to dress the snowchild. Faina (an appropriately fey name, I thought) runs in and out of their lives, through the spruce trees of the forest, fending for herself amongst the wild animals, even befriending a fox, and learning to trust this strange and sad couple. They welcome her with a kind of breathless caution, and she leads them to new places, new experiences and a gentle kind of happiness.

If you enjoy reading large swathes of description; if you’re happy with a slow pace – a very, very slow pace – and interested in the minutiae of farming and trapping in the icy wastes, then this is your kind of novel. I’m not usually … and yet I found much to commend this book to me. The writing has a certain lyrical beauty; the landscape Ivey describes has an ethereal quality – something of the magic unique to each individual snowflake, as well as to a bigger pristine and mysterious world of snow and ice. (Curiously we’re experiencing our own first snowfall of 2013 as I write!)

But I was less enamoured with the big chunks of the book where nothing happened. And with the curious juxtaposition of the fairytale and the reality. The author has used a technique of omitting quotation marks when the snowgirl is present to convey a doubt as to the reality of the child, but seems to me to have thrown away her advantage when she dips into earthy descriptions of childbirth and illness associated with the same otherworldly figure.

And the element of implausibility throughout made it difficult to grasp exactly what was being conveyed. Flesh-and-blood small girls don’t survive alone in the wilderness … but what of that grisly corpse? The treatment for puerperal fever is not freezing the patient outside in sub-zero temperatures … but what of that discarded nightdress in the empty bed under the stars? I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief in the interests of a gripping read, but … well, this one stretched my credulity a tad too far for comfort.

On the other hand the development of the relationship between Mabel and Jack once Mabel has established herself as a partner on the land they call their own, is well wrought. The robust contributions of the neighbours, the thawing of Mabel’s heart, are warming threads in the story. I liked the underlying messages of love and loyalty.

So, although I was delightfully entertained by The Snow Girl, overall I’m afraid the different strands failed to gel for me. It wouldn’t be in my top ten. But I’m probably in a small minority. Which is partly why I’ve devoted a whole post to this book.

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