Eowyn Ivey (2012) The Snow Child Headline Review, London; 448 pp.; ISBN 978-0-75538053-4
The story begins in 1920. Jack and Mabel, a couple entering their fifties, have moved to a remote part of Alaska to start a new life. A decade or so before, Mabel gave birth to a stillborn son and she has felt that loss keenly ever since. The move north was a way of running away from the sly gossip of family and friends, though in the end running away is never really a solution. Mabel had hoped that the shift to a new territory would bring her and Jack closer together but they spend most of their time apart, Jack trying to establish a farm in an unforgiving climate while Mabel ekes out the meagre supplies on which they live. The wolf, both figuratively and literally, is never far from the door.
As the first snow falls, Jack and Mabel reclaim a bit of their childhood pleasure tossing snowballs at one another, and together they build a snowman. Except that Mabel fashions the body like a girl’s and Jack then carves a girl’s face and features. The next day the snow girl has been destroyed and the scarf and hat it was wearing have disappeared. Mabel is sure that she saw a young girl during the night though no one in the area has a girl or has heard of a runaway.
Eventually both Jack and Mabel encounter the young girl who stole the clothing items and they are fascinated by her. Mabel sees echoes of a story her father used to tell her about a childless couple who built a snow girl that came to life and lived as their daughter until spring when she melted and disappeared. Here in Alaska springs come and go but this girl keeps re-appearing.
Although Jack and Mabel came to Alaska for solitude, they meet the Benson family: George, Esther and their three sons. The youngest son, Garrett, comes to help Jack on the farm and together they make the place productive. Mabel, aloof at first, eventually develops a friendship with Esther despite the fact that they are very different characters. When Mabel tells Esther about the girl, Esther thinks Mabel is losing her marbles.
Mabel and Jack are conscious that they are growing older and that the hard work on the farm is becoming more and more taxing. It is only through Garrett’s help that they are able to survive and the couple is very grateful to him. The Benson family finally meets the girl, who hides a dark secret in the mountains behind Jack and Mabel’s farm. Garrett in particular is smitten with the girl and eventually a relationship develops between them. Is it possible that the girl will abandon her wild life and settle as part of the family, or does something deeper call to her?
This tale is inspired by European fairy tales about a snow child that comes to life, and Arthur Ransome’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, an adaptation of the myth which is appended to the novel.
The girl in this novel is a child of the wilderness and is wary of civilisation. She is beautiful and gentle on the one hand, but is also a hunter who traps, kills and butchers animals. As she grows into adulthood the tension between the wild and the settled, solitude and society, the raw and the cooked, force her to make a choice.
But this novel is also about loss and the ability to overcome it. Mabel has run away to Alaska and put the screws on Jack to make the move as well. You sense that his heart is not fully committed to it. Mabel is running away from the constant reminder that she is childless and that the only baby she gave birth to was unable to live. She shuns society until Esther Benson barges her way into Mabel’s life. An incident on the farm means that Mabel also has to get out and work, and this combination of hard physical activity and companionship begins to lift her spirits. The appearance of the girl also allows Mabel to be a mother of sorts and slowly the ice in Mabel’s heart begins to thaw.
This is Eowyn Ivey’s first novel. She lives in Alaska and clearly has a deep affection for the place. She describes the climate and countryside in fine detail, as well as the types of character who end up there. It is a very long and involved story, though the plot remains on track. The characters are generally well depicted and some of the emotional friction is nicely observed, but the descriptions of Garrett’s emerging feelings for the girl are a little awkward and formulaic. There is an epilogue set several years after the final chapter which brings together some loose ends in a bucolic happy ending that borders on the saccharine, but generally the tale is well told. There is no great emotional or intellectual depth here, but if you like a good yarn for those long winter nights, this one might well do the trick.