Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

   Eowyn Ivey's debut novel tells the story of Mabel and Jack, a middle-aged couple who always wanted children, but were never able to raise any of their own.  In 1920, they decide to embark upon a journey of new beginnings, so they move to rural Alaska to live a farming/subsistence lifestyle on their new homestead.  Despite their efforts to seek fulfillment, Mabel and Jack are still plagued by loneliness, and they seem to be growing farther apart from one another.  One day, during a brief occasion of intimacy, they decide to build a snowman together, which bears a resemblance to a little girl.  But the next morning, the snowman is gone, and Jack and Mabel are bewildered, even more so when a mysterious child appears on their property.  A closer look reveals that the child is a little girl, and for Jack and Mabel, there is something strangely familiar about her.   

   The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, in which a girl made of snow is raised by a childless couple.  There are many versions of the story, but Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) endures a terrible fate in nearly every one.  In Eowyn Ivey's novel, Mabel is of Russian heritage and is very familiar with the story, and she begins to believe that perhaps their little snow child, whose name is Faina, is a magical manifestation and an answer to their prayers.  Mabel is constantly asking herself whether or not Faina is real, or if the loneliness of the Alaskan wilderness is finally getting to her.

  The Snow Child was recently added to Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers shortlist, and the award is very well-deserved for Eowyn Ivey.  I was so impressed by the writing in this novel that I could not put it down.  It is reminiscent of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book in the descriptions of the isolated landscape and quiet, domestic scenes, but the fairy tale characteristics add a whole new dimension to the story.  Even for the reader, Faina is almost like a mirage - floating in and out of the realm of reality and never staying in either place long enough to be sure where she belongs.

   I really enjoyed reading this novel, especially the juxtaposition of the harsh, solitary landscape of Alaska peppered with the whimsical and peculiar characteristics of the Snegurochka story.  This is a book that I will be recommending for a long time.  Eowyn Ivey writes with such grace, intuition, and delicate precision, and I hope she continues to write and publish her work.

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