The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey, A charming fairytale about a girl made of snow

“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.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

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…

Musical adaptation of The Snow Child at Arena Stage in D.C.

Musical adaptation of The Snow Child at Arena Stage in D.C.

Book Review

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.


Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)

Part One.

Chapters 1 - 4. Mabel and Jack are a childless older couple living in the Alaskan wilderness in 1920. They previously had one stillborn child. The moved out to Alaska a little under two years ago. The lifestyle has been hard on Mabel.

Jack meets George Benson in town who befriends him and offers to help with clearing the land. He tells him he should shoot a moose in order to have food for the winter, but it will be hard to find one now that Fall is over. They have dinner with George and his wife Esther and their boys, which lifts Mabel's spirits. Mabel and Jack build a snowgirl.

Chapters 5 - 13. Jack notices their snowgirl is gone. Mabel catches a glimpse of the girl, but follows it only to find a fox. Jack sees the girl as well and she leads him to a moose before disappearing. He shoots it. One of George's boys hears the shots and offers to help him carve it up. Mabel asks Esther about the girl, but Esther says there's no one like that around.

Jack tries offering the girl food, but she's not interested. He then leaves her a doll, and she leaves them a basket of wild blueberries. Mabel writes to her sister, asking her to find a children's book she remembers about a couple who build a girl out of snow.

Jack tries to follow the girl, but stops when he comes upon a small door. Later, she shows up while he is working and he's able to invite her in. She has dinner with them.

She comes back occasionally, bringing them gifts like pelts and small game. One day, she leads Jack to the dead body of a man. She tells him he was her father. He died the same night they made the snowgirl. She asks him to promise not to tell anyone. He helps her to bury the body.

Part Two.

Chapters 14 - 20. Mabel is happy and looks forward to the visits. The girl tells them her name is Faina. She has a fox that travels with her and keeps her safe.

Mabel receives the Russian children's book from her sister. Her sister has asked a man, Arthur Ransome, about the folktale. She tells her the story, but adds that it always ends badly. The snow girl melts, leaves or disappears at the end. In one of the endings, the girl leaves because the couple refuses to give up a hen for her fox. When Jack and Mabel need to slaughter their hens for food, Mabel insists they give one hen to the fox.

One day, Esther tells them about people who have gone a bit crazy out in the wilderness, with Esther ribbing Mabel about seeing visions of a girl. Mabel wants to prove to Esther she is real by showing her snow angels the girl made, but the snow covers them up. Mabel recalls an incident from her childhood when she believed she had caught a fairy. She showed her sister, but that turned out to be a songbird and by catching it in the box she had killed it.

Spring arrives, and the girl says goodbye. Jack goes to the little door he once saw to look for Faina. It's clear she lived in the shelter, but she is now nowhere to be found.

Chapters 21 - 25. One day, Mabel finds Jack injured in the fields. Mabel tells George that they will be leaving as soon as Jack is well enough to travel. However, Esther shows up with Garret and supplies. She says they are going to help plant the fields.

They help out as Jack slowly heals. Esther leaves when they are done planting, but Garret stays through the summer. Garret is about to shoot a fox one day when Jack stops him, saying it was the girl's fox. Jack tells him the girl was real, but Garret is skeptical. At home, Mabel has sewed a coat for the girl for when she returns.

Chapters 26 - 29. Jack doesn't think Faina will return, but she shows up on the night of the first snow of winter. Jack wants her to stay, but Mabel wants to let her be, believing that she is a snowgirl.

Jack finally breaks his promise and tells Mabel about the man he buried, and that Faina's mother died of consumption when she was a baby. Mabel is now convinced she is real and runs out to find her. She falls and they end up having to spend the night in the cold. They talk about their stillborn son.

Chapters 30 - 35. Knowing she is real, Mabel wants her to stay with them and get her enrolled in school, but the girl resists. Eventually, Jack and Mabel seem to accept she is real but there is something different about her. Mabel finally tells Esther the full story, and Esther tells her she believes her. Jack takes Mabel and Faina ice skating.

Part Three.

Chapters 36 - 44. It's now 1926, eight years have passed since they moved to Alaska. Each winter Faina shows up, and each spring Faina leaves.

Garret sees the red fox as he has many times but finally shoots it this time. Immediately, he feels bad about it. Jack and Mabel invite him over and let him know they are leaving the farm to him when they pass away. Garret comes across the girl for the first time. She is in the forest, captures a swan and guts it.

Soon, the Bensons show up as Faina is around. They realize she is real. Garret follows her one day, claiming he is tracking a wolverine. He admits he killed her fox. She offers him the dead carcass of the wolverine, which he refuses, and tells him not to come back. However, he gets lost in the snow, and she has to show him how to get back.

He goes to find her again, and she shows him a bear den. He brings a husky puppy to Mabel's house as a gift for Faina. She loves it. Garret starts helping to train the puppy.

Chapters 45 - 54. Faina and Garret clearly have fallen for each other and Faina plans to stay for the summer. Jack follows Faina and Garret to see what they're up to and is disturbed enough by what he sees to punch Garret. Still, Garret returns later to help plow the fields.

Faina is not feeling well and Mabel tells her she is pregnant. There will be a wedding, Mabel and Jack decide. Mabel recalls the storybook and the image of the snow maiden getting married and then melting away in the sun. Jack decides to build them a cabin of their own.

They have the wedding, and the cabin is completed. Faina disappears often during the days. Faina has the baby, though she still seems to long for freedom. One night, she has a fever. Mabel and Jack go over to look after her. Faina wants to be in the cold, so Mabel goes with her and sleep outside.

When Mabel wakes up, she is covered in snow and Faina is gone, though her clothes are there. Garret goes to look for her.

Epilogue.

15 years have passed since Mabel and Jack first met Faina. The baby is now Little Jack, and the husky is old. Garret still lives in the cabin. It is about the snow, and as they watch the snow start to fall, Little Jack jumps around with glee.

See The Snow Child on Amazon.