Eowyn Ivey’s surefooted and captivating debut novel, The Snow Child, begins in 1920, as Mabel and Jack—middle-aged homesteaders in Alaska—try to rough it through their second winter there.
They’d moved West to escape painful memories of their only child, stillborn 10 years earlier, and the crush of nearby family that reminded them of their loss. The brutal Alaskan winters batter them with isolation and relentless cold, and they nearly starve. Eventually, with the help of friendly neighbors, the new landscape helps Mabel and Jack remember why they loved each other in the first place, and in a fit of playfulness, they build a snowman, shaping it like a girl and dressing it with a red scarf.
The snow girl vanishes, and Mabel and Jack begin to catch glimpses of a child in the woods, “a red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees.”
They leave gifts for the girl, who approaches them cautiously. Her name is Faina, and she gradually becomes a mysterious, seasonal daughter to them, eating at their table, accompanying them on chores, and always disappearing into the wilderness at the first signs of snowmelt.
The Russian fairy tale of the Snow Maiden (“Snegurochka”) inspired Ivey, and she weaves it throughout The Snow Child, as Mabel consults the different versions of the story to try to account for the behavior of their surrogate child. Ivey takes a fantastical premise and runs with it, playing it two ways, creating a novel that is both realistic and magical.
Jack discovers that Faina was the child of a local drunk who died in the wilderness, leaving her to grow up alone and feral. Yet no one else has ever seen her, and there are odd parallels between the girl’s life and the folktale Mabel studies; for instance, both Faina and the Snow Maiden have a red fox as a companion.
Ivey’s prose has the lulling quality of a fairy tale, and the native Alaskan’s portraits of the state’s fierce winters and singular inhabitants are convincing enough to make readers believe in Faina.
At one point, Mabel thinks, “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.”
This book review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Snow Child
By Eowyn Ivey
416 pages, $14.99