“Like many fairy tales, there are many different ways it is told, but it always begins the same. An old man and an old woman live happily in their small cottage in the forest, but for one sorrow: they have no children of their own. One winter’s day, they build a girl of snow.”
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is based in the Russian folktale, Snegurochk which means “Snow Maiden,” about a couple who build a child out of snow. For fans of folktales, this one is a lovely, bittersweet and whimsically literary tale.
I started the book a long time ago, but it got buried and forgotten under stacks and stacks of other unfinished books. It wasn’t until I was putting together my list of Christmas and wintry reads that I decided to make a point of reading it.
The Snow Child is set in 1920, and Jack and Mabel are a childless couple trying to forge a new life in the Alaskan wilderness. They moved a little less than two years after their only child was stillborn. They are homesteaders, clearing land and hoping to farm it in order to claim the land as their own.
It’s a harsh and often lonely life. One day, they playfully build a snowgirl, but the next morning she is gone. Instead, they start to catch glimpses of a small blond girl off in the trees…
I’m surprised this was Ivey’s debut novel, since I wouldn’t have guessed otherwise. The Snow Child is capably-written and thought-provoking in a kind of whimsical way. It’s a book that stirs up all the feels of longing and wistfulness, and then plasters them all on a dazzling snow-capped pastoral landscape.
The Snow Child uses magical realism and folklore to tell a story about hope, grief, loss, family, fairytales and survival. The central narrative is about a couple, Mabel and Jack, learning to endure the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness and cope with the loss of their child.
When the snowgirl appears, the question of what her true nature is — a lonely orphan or some type of magical snow sprite? — drives the book forward. In answering that question, Ivey explores a wide range of themes, such as the futility of struggling against one’s nature, the bonds of family and friendship, and purpose of fairytales.
The result is a novel that’s intelligent, but without pretensions. The book is life-affirming as the couple relies on each other and their neighbors to get through the hardships of starting anew in an unforgiving land. It fills its stark Alaskan landscape with images of snowflakes and silver foxes, enhancing its appeal as a charming and imaginative read.
Read It or Skip It?
If you love folktales and are looking for something with a bit more substance than your typical YA-type fairytale retellings, the Snow Child is probably going to be a win for you. It’s a hopeful yet bittersweet story, and it is delightful to spend some time lost in its frosty setting. To the extent you care about this sort of thing, it was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I’d also recommend this for anyone looking for a good winter read. From ice skating to snow angels to warm winter mittens, this book has all the snowy elements to complement a crackling fireplace and hot cup of tea.
Have you read this book? Did you love it? Note that if you want to discuss the ending, please consider using the
[spoiler][/spoiler] tag around any spoiler-ish comments! Thank you!