Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

This is one of those novels that's been on my to-read list for a long time, almost since it was first published in February of 2012. Friends, coworkers and customers would ask if I'd had a chance to read it yet, to which I'd sheepishly reply that no, I hadn't gotten around to it yet. So when a burst of hot weather had most of us Western Washingtonians melting into our patio chairs and my thoughts turned wistfully to the approach of winter, I convinced myself that now was the time to read Eowyn Ivey's celebrated story of frontier Alaska in the 1920s.

Jack and Mable, childless and getting on in years, left Jack's family farm in Pennsylvania to pursue the promise of a new start in the untamed wilds of Alaska. While she occupies herself with the mundane domestic niceties of keeping their small cabin, and he works himself to a breaking point to tame their land into workable fields, they both steadfastly avoid the subject of their childlessness and the one stillborn baby that they left buried in Pennsylvania. One night in a fit of affection and loneliness, they build a snow-girl with the first snowfall of the season. The next morning, a small girl and her fox have appeared on the periphery of their homestead. The snow child is destroyed, its mittens and scarf adopted by the little girl, and as the girl slowly makes her way into their lives Jack and Mable wonder if the girl could possibly be real, or if they're trapped in some sort of fairytale.

Ivey's novel walks a very fine line between fiction and fantasy, and the result is a breathtaking, immersive reading experience where neither the reader nor the characters are certain of what is true and what is cabin fever or wishful thinking. Both Mable and Jack have their own ways of working things out in their minds, both regarding their lost child and coming to terms with what the presence of the new one means. Some of their approaches were effective, and others were not. Their development as a family, as a couple, and as Alaskan homesteaders all went together nicely, but not necessarily easily; I found myself loving one of them and disliking the other back and forth over the course of the story. In the end they were brought together though, again thanks to the snow child, along with some other vibrant characters and even me as a reader.

The author, who lives in Alaska, did a wonderful job of depicting the beautiful and sometimes intimidating vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. Setting the story in the 1920's allowed Ivey to not only to give her characters certain gender roles that needed to be overcome to ensure their survival in such a potentially harsh environment. Additionally, it also let the author take advantage of the isolation that was a part of frontier life everywhere, not just in Alaska. Even if your homestead was within visiting distance of another family, could a person afford to take a day off and visit instead of working on their own farm? Usually not. This lack of outside contact really helped to make me honestly wonder if the snow child were real, or just part of the characters slowly going mad due to unresolved sorrows and the beautiful loneliness of an unsettled wilderness.

The Snow Child will appeal to fans of Alaskan literature and those who like a very thin line between fiction and fairytale. To me the honest inability to tell the difference between what was real and what was in the characters' heads was at once frustrating and fantastic, attesting to Ivey's skill with words. You can find Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child at your favorite local, independent bookstore right now. 

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