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Words

Snow Child

A frigid fairy tale

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It’s still winter, and despite a lack of snow in Whatcom County, it’s fun to cozy up on the couch and read about it. Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, fits the bill perfectly. It’s moody and atmospheric, part historical novel and part fairy tale.

Set in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s, Snow Child is about Jack and Mabel, inexperienced homesteaders who leave their comfortable East Coast lives behind after suffering a miscarriage. The barren northern landscape and the challenge of eking out an existence provide only brief respite from their grief, and they begin drifting apart. Then, on the night of the first winter snow, they impulsively build a tiny snowman together—a snow child—and laugh for the first time in many months. 

Something wonderful and inexplicable happens: the next morning, instead of the snow child, Jack and Mabel catch a glimpse of its red scarf on the neck of a little blonde girl, running through the woods.  Confused, and concerned for her safety, they call to her, but she skitters away. 

In time, they become accustomed to seeing the rosy-cheeked girl and her companion, a red fox, and they begin to interact with her. Yet mysteries abound. Who is this girl, who calls herself Faina? Where did she come from? And how is she able to survive, alone, in the harsh Alaskan winter?

As Jack and Mabel grow to love the enigmatic child and think of her as their own, their sense of hope is reborn. Yet they realize Faina is a wild creature who may not ever be truly tamed.

Based on a Russian fairy tale, Snow Child has many elements of traditional stories: childlike wonder and magic juxtaposed with violence and brooding darkness. Ivey is a keen observer of nature and clearly loves Alaska, detailing its many beauties. She also seems to have carefully researched what it was like to be an Alaskan homesteader, adding depth and historical accuracy to the mix. 

Ivey attended Western Washington University, so in a small way we can claim her as local, although she now lives in south central Alaska with her husband and children.  Her blog, “Letters from Alaska” (http://www.lettersfromalaska.wordpress.com) has not been updated recently, but it hints of another novel in the works, tentatively titled Shadows on the Wolverine. Let’s hope she completes it soon, so we can enjoy more of her precise, lyrical prose while the nights are long and ripe for reading. Let it snow!

Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. She reviews fiction for Library Journal and loves discussing books each month with friends in two local book clubs.

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