A MAGICAL MODERN FAIRY TALE – Review of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child is the strange and magical tale of a middle-aged couple who, in 1920, leave their gentrified lives for the wilds of Alaska. Jack and Mabel, grieving for the loss of their stillborn child and unable to bear the gossip about their childlessness, wish to begin anew – perhaps purge and punish themselves – when they settle along the shores of the Wolverine River.
They are neither practical, nor young, nor strong and they struggle. In a rare moment of levity, Mabel and Jack build a snow child in their yard, adorned with a red hat and mittens. In the morning the hat and the mittens and, indeed, the snow child, have disappeared.
The Snow Child is inspired by Arthur Ransome’s fairy tale, The Little Daughter of the Snow. A short while after creating the child, Mabel sees a girl in the snow, wearing a faded flower print dress and a marten-lined coat. Gradually Jack and Mabel get to know the little girl and grow to love her like their own daughter. The girl, who seems to be completely alone, has not only managed to survive the harsh winter, but seems to thrive in this harsh landscape:
‘Mabel was no longer sure of the child’s age. She seemed both newly born and as old as the mountains, her eyes animated with unspoken thoughts, her face impassive.’
Faina is beautiful and wild, like the half-tamed fox she hunts with:
‘The girl’s hair was white-blond, but when Mabel studied it, 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.’
The child rarely allows the couple to show her affection; she is ready to bolt at the first sign of them attempting to ‘trap’ her in their cabin. Mabel draws Faina, the pencil standing in for the caresses she wishes she could give the girl:
‘She drew the gentle curve of the child’s cheekbones, the peaks of her small lips, the inquisitive arch of her blond eyebrows. Self-contained, wary and brave, the tilt of her eyes hinting at wildness.’
The Snow Child rarely strays into the schmaltz of magical realism, although the thought that the child was created by snow and longing is always present:
‘What happened in that cold dark, when frost formed a halo in the child’s straw hair and snowflake turned to flesh and bone?’
But questions about where the child really came from and who she is haunt Mabel. She worries, as the child overheats in the warm cabin, that she will melt, just as the child in the story does, and feels half insane for harbouring such thoughts. Nevertheless, the girl is clearly no ordinary child:
‘The snowflake was no bigger than the smallest skirt button. It was six pointed with fernlike tips and a hexagonal heart, and it sat in the child’s palm like a tiny feather when it should have melted.’
The book is stunningly beautifully written, none of the many descriptions of snow and the chill land are repetitive:
‘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 stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?’
It is, perhaps, no surprise how the story ends, yet the how, the when and the why are wonderfully realised. This is a evocative modern version of a fairy story, it is the tale of how a married couple truly begin to understand and heal one another, and the love and loss that ensues when one attempts to tame a wild creature and conquer of a wilderness.