What would you do if a fairy tale came to life before you, but no one believed you?
The Snow Child is based on the Russian fairy tale motif of a childless older couple who build a child of snow, only to find that their longing for a child has brought it to life. Just to warn tender-hearted readers, this particular cluster of tales invariably ends with the girl dying as a result of melting in spring or by the heat of love…though I try to avoid giving away the endings of stories.
A middle aged childless couple, Jack and Mabel, move from the kinder gentler climes of Pennsylvania to homestead in Alaska, enamored of the image built up in the publicity tat in a brochure. After two years, with the return of winter for the third time, and the days and temperatures close in, they realize that they’re NOT making a go of it; the visions of glorious Alpine meadows are no more than tourism attractions. Homesteading in Alaska even today isn’t for the faint of heart; in the 1920s, the state was even more challenging for cheechakos from outside, to put it mildly. The physical demands of farming in a region for which the growing season may be measured in weeks is difficult enough, not to mention bringing supplies into a region which has no roads. Having poured all their financial resources into this farm, they have no choice but to keep trying despite knowing they may not make it through this winter as they cannot afford enough food for themselves much less their horse and their chickens.
Despite all this they find a bit of childishly gleeful joy with the first snowfall that third winter, and make a snow girl: three balls of snow, a scarf, a pair of mittens and a tousle of hay for hair. The next morning, the snowgirl is crumbled and the clothing is gone, and they both spot a phantasm flitting through the twilight woods in the shape of a little girl, wearing those selfsame mittens and scarf, accompanied by an equally hallucinatory fox. Even today and much more so then, shipping things into the wilds of Alaska is virtually impossible; you make do with what you have and go without everything else. Heat was from woodstoves, light from oil lamps…neighbors whose separation is measured in miles, no doctors, no roads, not much in the way of daylight in winter, all result in the kind of isolation that can quite literally drive people mad. Are these two slipping into that gulf?
No one else has seen this girl. No one knows of a family who’s lost a girl. The neighboring families all assume that Jack and Mabel have simply begun the slide into cabin fever born of isolation in the Alaskan bush…or have they? At first it’s not clear whether Faina is real or simply the result of their longing for a child of their own and grief over the stillborn child they lost and left behind buried in Pennsylvania. She flits into their home when she feels like it, but cannot stay if she finds the house too warm, and disappears entirely with the arrival of spring and the warming weather. The two are bereft, and think her lost to them forever, but she returns the following fall with the first snowfall, and the pattern continues for several years. Over time, others see her as well and as she (and the neighbor boy) mature into adulthood she become more firmly real to everyone.
As with most of the Debut Novels I’ve read, I’ll reserve judgement on the author until she writes another of equal quality to this. On the plus side, I adore modern retellings and adaptations of fairy tales, and this one is reasonably well done; it sticks close to the original tale while adapting the setting seamlessly from the Russian steppes to the Alaskan wilderness. While I don’t deny the book has magical realism overtones (and I love that when well done), unlike many of the other reviews I’ve seen, I did guess quite early on whether Faina was a real feral child or a fairy child born of Jack and Mabel’s grief and longing; Ivey makes that crystal clear, as she shifts between Jack and Mabel’s perspectives. The second half shifts away from that magical “is she or isn’t she?” realism of the first half–still worth reading but disconcertingly different in tone–and the novel ends in a decidedly realistic childbirth scene. Oh, and don’t read it if you have a soft spot for chickens or are squeamish about descriptions of what trappers and hunters must do to render their catch suitable for human use. I’d say it had a happy ending in that the surviving characters have formed the family they so desired, but it has a tragic denouement; make sure you’re set for tissues if you’re prone to snifflie weepies.