Friday, September 21, 2012


The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 388 pp

I complained the other day about The Newlyweds being too lightweight as a novel and some readers felt that way about The Snow Child. These quibbles fall under a category of artistic criticism I call "a sense of the fitness of things."

The Snow Child is written in the style of an updated fairytale and quite successfully so. In 1920, a middle-aged couple left their home and family in New England and moved to Alaska. The husband came from a farming background so he figured he would do well as a homesteader in Alaska.

They had been disappointed when their first child was stillborn and never conceived again. It was a sorrow the wife could not get over and left her feeling inadequate as a woman. For Jack, Alaska was a chance for independence; for Mabel it was an escape from constant reminders of her failure to have children.

During their first hard winter, in a rare moment of happiness, this increasingly estranged couple built a child out of snow and that is where the fairytale began. The snow child melted away but a real child appeared, a feral blond-haired girl wearing the red scarf Mabel had wrapped around the snow child's neck.

Mabel was a life long reader. She brought her collection of books to the Alaskan wilderness, among which was an ancient tome of folktales. One of those tales is about a child made of snow who grows up to fall in love with a human man. It is not one of those stories with a happy ending.

The novel moves slowly at the pace of a dream. There in the passage of time and seasons events transpire, but these are presented as vignettes, almost like scenes in a play. I knew it would end in tragedy, I could recognize and feel the progression towards that. Mabel knows the end of the folktale but lives and hopes as though she has a daughter of her own at last.

I read the book while on vacation in Marin County, CA. The trip was a respite from weeks of hot weather, from months of dieting and exercise, from my so-called real life. A nephew's wedding took place on the shores of the San Francisco Bay followed by the reception at a rustic bed-and-breakfast deep in the fog of Muir Woods near the top of Mt Tamalpias. We spent lovely sunny days surrounded by extended family and grandchildren.

The pace of The Snow Child fit perfectly. It calmed and relaxed me. Children are a gift, they grow and leave, they rarely turn out the way you planned, they are sometimes spiteful and ungrateful for all your sacrifices on their behalf. Sometimes they die before you. All of that is contained in this novel. The complex tangled strands of parenthood presented simply as part of the truth of life. Not a pageturner, not a thriller, not a bit pretentious, but stark and raw and full of love and wonder.

(The Snow Child is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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