Friday, March 14, 2014

The Snow Child Book Review {by Eowyn Ivey}

Title: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey 
Pages: 386
Published: February 2012
Our Rating:

3.75 stars

SUMMARY: "The Snow Child provides an interesting contrast of an unhurried, ethereal, fairy-tale and the beauty and brutality of life on a homestead. Alaska in 1920 was a cruel place to live, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart-- he breaking under the weight of the work; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blond-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them as adapt to their new life, new friends, and new love."  (Summary adapted from

The Snow Child been described as dazzling and enchanting, unnerving and honest. Robert Goolrick, the author of A Reliable Wife said, “If Willa Cather and Gabriel García Marquéz had collaborated on a book, The Snow Child would be it.”


Right away we all agreed that this book was not plot driven, although it does has a certain constancy about it, similar to an Alaskan winter. The charm of the storyline is the characters, the relationships, and the sad, cold aura that seems to permeate the entire novel only to occasionally be sprinkled with moments of hope and happiness.

We discussed several possible themes for the book. Like life’s uncertainty, loss, grief, how you cannot run from problems and bottling things up and shutting people out is never effective. Though we cannot choose our ‘beginnings’, we can we choose our ‘endings’. Many of the themes were delivered by way of letters Mabel received from her sister, Ada. Here are a few of our favorites:

From a letter to Mabel from her sister, Ada, about the Russian fairytale book,

 "What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell is to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?” P. 129

"Was it as Ada had suggested, that we can choose our own endings, joy over sorrow? Or does the cruel world just give and take, give and take, while we flounder through the wilderness”. P. 155

 “We never know what is going to happen, do we" Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. Its all a mystery and when we say any different we're lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive". Letter from Ada (Mabel’s sister) 

Character relationships played a key role in the story. Since the plot moved a little slowly, we discussed how the character descriptions and relationships had to carry the storyline. It seemed that most of the relationships were unlikely ones forged by circumstance, not necessarily choice. One example is that of Mabel, an Alaskan-transplant and refined city woman without any experience in farming or frontier living and Garrett, a spry young man with an affinity for living off the land as a trapper and hunter. Here’s a great quote describing the unique relationship they developed, allowing Mabel to adapt to her new life.

"Who would think that an adolescent boy would have anything to teach an old woman? But it was Garrett who had led her into the fields and closer to the life she had pictured for herself in Alaska. She would think of no way to explain that to him. With a mother like Esther, surely he could not imagine a woman doing anything against her will, or worse yet, not knowing her own will. It was as if Mabel had been living in a hole, comfortable and safe as it might have been, and he had merely reached down a hand to help her step up into the sunlight. From there she was free to walk where she would." P. 208
{Alaska downtown storefront around 1920}

We all loved the tender and tentative relationship between Mabel with Faina. Take note of the emotion portrayed through the author’s words.

"Mabel took the cloche and veil from its hook and set it on Faina's head, securing it with hairpins. Then she wove the wild pink roses and white star flowers into the lacework above Faina's braids across her forehead. But it wasn't a crown, not a circle of flowers that could sprout from the earth.

Faina reached out for Mabel's hand and squeezed it. Her touch strong and warm, and Mabel squeezed back and then impulsively brought the girls' hand to her lips to kiss it.

"I love you, child." She whispered

Faina's face was quiet and kind.

"I wish to be the mother you are to me, she said so softly Mabel doubted her own ears. But those were the words she spoke, and Mabel took them into her heart and held them there forever." P. 351

Faina had a peculiar relationship to a wild red fox. We discussed how it was almost as if it was more than a friendship, but a magical lifeline. It seemed to be an integral part of who Faina was. They were always together, separate but together. The fox also was part of what made her live. Once the fox was killed, Faina and Garrett met, fell in love, and married; but he didn't seem to fill the same place the fox did. Again, here is another part of the magic. We talked about the possibility that the fox was part of her heart; part of her make-up, and nothing/no one could fix the part that was broken.
Photo Credit: Rodney Campbell
We felt the books’ strengths were:
1. The imagery of Alaskan wilderness through prism of magical realism. The author has a wonderful way that describes the realities of the harshness of the wind and the delicate falling of snow. The vivid imagery is one thing that many us enjoyed the most. Here’s an excerpt: 

"It wasn't just the river otter. She once spied a gray-brown coyote slinking across a field with his mouth half open as if in laughter. She watched Bohemian waxwings like twilight shadows flock from tree to tree as if some greater force orchestrated their flight. She saw a white ermine sprint past the barn with a fat vole in its mouth. And each time, Mabel felt something leap in her chest. Something hard and pure. She was in love. Eight years she'd lived here, and at last the land had taken a hold of her, and she could comprehend some small part of Faina's wildness.” P. 207

2. The enigmatic nature of the titular snow child. Snow child or abandoned little girl? This is the question that plagues her adoptive parents and the reader and was one topic that was discussed at length. Faina’s vulnerable fragility masked by the exterior of strength and stubbornness is touching, indeed, but it left us with a split decision as to if she was human or a magical creation of her surroundings. We concluded that it's precisely this mysteriousness, further underscored by the quotation mark-less dialogue every time Fauna makes her appearance that, while endearing, makes her character have less of a connection to the readers. Some felt this was intentional from the author to help readers feel the evasiveness she left in Mabel & Jack’s hearts.

“No matter how she turned it over in her mind, Mabel always traced the child's footsteps back to the night she and Jack had shaped her from snow. Jack had etched her lips and eyes. Mabel had given her mittens and reddened lips. That night the child was born to them of ice and snow and longing... The exact science of one molecule transformed into another -- that Mabel cold not explain, but then again she couldn't explain how a fetus formed in the womb, cells becoming beating heart and hoping soul. She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white starts melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?” P. 204

"Never had Mabel imagined the little girl would be sitting before them, at their own kitchen table. How had this come to be? The moment had the surreal fast-and-slow movement of a dream. She was even smaller than she had appeared from a distance, and the chair back towered around her... Mabel saw her thin arms and small shoulders. She wore that same cotton dress with tiny flowers on it, but Mabel could see now that it was a summer dress for a grown woman. Beneath it, she wore a long-underwear shirt that was too small; the sleeves did not reach her thin wrists. The girl's hair was white-blond... she saw that woven and twisted among the strands were gray-green lichens, wild yellow grasses and curled bits of birch bark. It was strange and lovely, like a wild bird's nest.” P. 98

3. The depiction of quiet desperate sadness and alienation that plagues a deeply unhappy couple, torn apart by the weight of grief, struggling under the burden of their perceived failures. 

Each of us in the group has a different background and related to the circumstances that caused the initial strain in Mabel and Jack’s relationship differently. Realizing all relationships, especially marital ones, have their difficulties, we related to and discussed the struggles, joys and sorrows of the main character couple.

"Oh Jack, why does it always have to be somebody's fault?"

"Because it always is."

"No. Sometimes these things happen. Life doesn't go the way we plan or hope, but we don't have to be so angry, do we?"

He continued eating, but without any pleasure as far as Mabel could tell. It was as if he was gagging down each bite. Finally he gave up and pushed his plate away. "

Artistic depictions of the fairy tale that inspired this book:
 Source: Daniel /Buffalo NewZakroczemskis

The Russian folk tale: Snegurocka

A tragic young maiden made of snow, doomed to demise the fire/spring/love in the many versions of the fairytale (beautifully depicted by the famous painter Vasnetsov) who through the last couple of centuries cam to fill the role of the granddaughter of Father Frost, the ubiquitous presents at any kindergarten New Year's Day party, and the inspiration for many children's New Year's Eve outfits.

Final Thoughts
Every fairy tale has sadness- beginning or ending. Some end living “happily ever after”, and others are ‘to be continued’. The ending was a source of controversy as to whether it was satisfying, or left more questions than answers. While we agreed that the book was a bit slow, it was beautifully written and we would recommend it to individuals and book clubs who want to believe in love, overcome obstacles and a experience a little bit of magic.

“You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them. In fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. 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. “ P 364

About the Author:
Photo Source: Star Tribune

Eowyn Ivey currently lives in Alaska with her husband and their 2 daughters. As a family, they harvest salmon and wild berries, keep a vegetable garden, turkeys and chickens, and they hunt caribou, moose, and bear for meat. Because they don’t have a well and live outside any public cut water system, they haul water each week for their holding tank and gather rainwater for their animals and garden. Their primary source of home heat is a wood stove, and they harvest and their own wood. These activities are important to Eowyn’s day-to-day life as well as the rhythm of her year.

Her career has taken her from writing pages of the “Frontiersman” newspaper, to writing novels and selling books in between. The Snow Child is Eowyn’s debut novel. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in London’s Observer Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Sunday Express Magazine, Woman & Home Magazine, the anthology Cold Flashes, the North Pacific Rim literary journal Cirque, FiveChapters, and Alaska Magazine.

She is currently a contributor to the blog 49Writers and a founding member of Alaska’s first statewide writing center. 

Author Q&A:

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

A: One day I was shelving books at the bookstore where I worked and in the children’s section and I came across a used, inexpensive paperback children’s book about the snow child. I quickly read it there in the store, and I just knew. This was it. I became a bit obsessed—researching the original Russian fairy tale and imagining my own version.

Q. How does being a bookseller influence the way you write—or does it?

A: This is a great, complex question. The Snow Child absolutely would not have been born if it weren’t for Fireside Books. But on a more subtle level, working as a bookseller informed me on trends and markets and what readers want. I can’t say it influenced what I wrote—it’s a shortcoming of mine that I’m able to write only what I really, really want to write. But it helped me recognize when I had an idea I thought might be exciting to other people, too.

Q: What are some books you would recommend with an Alaskan setting?
A Winter on Earth
by Joseph Enzweiler
  Two in the Far North
by Margaret E. Murie
Tales from the Dena
by Dale DeArmond

heavy (mostly killing and cleaning of animals)

 Want to see our photos, recipes and many other book club ideas for THE SNOW CHILD? Then check out THIS POST!


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