Jan 22, 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is loosely based on the fairy tale of the same title, and it tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who move to Alaska in the 1920’s to attempt a new start. Mabel is still mourning the child she lost many years before, and she and Jack are drifting apart. As they struggle through their first few seasons farming in an inhospitable climate, a child appears in their lives – a little girl they spot out in the woods in the snow one winter, and who immediately reminds Mabel of the fairy tale she used to read when she was a child herself.

You all know I’m a big fan of fairy tales, both original and retold, but what I liked the most about The Snow Child was actually the more realistic aspects of the novels – the descriptions of the landscape, the way it captures the changing seasons and the passing of time, and the fact that it portrays the lives of characters who are entirely dependent on the land while avoiding the romanticisation of rural life. Jack and Mabel’s Alaska is no Arcadia – though the obvious disclaimer to make here is that as a city-dweller I’m likely to miss less obvious ways of stereotyping rural living. Still, I liked the fact that Ivey wrote about both the struggles and the joys in her characters’ lives: we see all the struggle and uncertainty involved in farming in Alaska, but also the moments of joy when Jack and Mabel’s efforts pay or when they pause to take in the beauty of the surrounding land.

Also, there was something about Ivey’s writing that echoed my experiences with winter over the years, though of course I’ve never even come close to knowing what a winter in Alaska is like. The novel starts in a really dark place, with Mabel feeling trapped in her small cabin and considering walking over the frozen river so it would break and drown her – a quick way to die while sparing Jack the added pain of knowing she’d taken her life. The cold and darkness of winter make her feel lethargic, but as the novel progresses she moves from a place of despair to learning to make the frozen world her own. This transformation isn’t presented as effortless magic, but as the fragile result of deliberation and self-care.

Faina, the snow child of the title, is an elusive character we only ever see from the outside: the emphasis in less on her and more on the effect her presence has on the lives of those she encounters – first Jack and Mabel, and then Garrett, the neighbours’ boy the couple befriend. The Snow Child could very easily been a manic pixie dream girl type story, but for me the presence of Mabel and Esther (Garrett’s mother and Mabel’s best friend) prevented this from happening. I think I’ve said a few times before that I don’t have anything against stories where a character is idealised, and where the focus isn’t so much on who they are as a person but on how they affected the person who’s telling the story. The one thing that does bother me is the pattern that emerges when we put these stories together: the subject is almost always male and the object female. The Snow Child does give us a female subject, and Mabel and Esther’s messy and complicated humanity provide a counterpoint to Faina’s intangible nature.

(On a side note, Mabel’s longing for Faina is that of a mother for a child, and while that’s a perfectly valid storytelling choice and one I enjoyed reading about, it got me thinking that it would be awesome to read a story where this desire was less easily to categorise and not as closely connected to a traditional female role. I want to emphasise that this is not a criticism of this particular story [stories about motherhood matter and I want them to exist]; it’s just me expressing my desire for more stories of a type I don’t encounter very often. The Snow Child is awesome as it is, but so is the alternative novel I can kind of envision in my head.)

The fairy tale elements of The Snow Child are very clearly self-aware – not only does Mabel establish an explicit link between Faina’s presence in her life and the fairy tale she loved as a child, but she also uses the fairy tale to guide her as she navigates an unfamiliar situation. I especially like the fact that this self-awareness isn’t used to make the narrative seem clever for its own sake, but rather for greater thematic resonance. Take, for example, this conversation between Esther and Mabel:
“Soon she will leave again. It’s just like in the fairy tale. Faina will leave us in the spring, and I just can’t bear the thought of it. What if we lose her? What if she never comes back to us?”
“Hmmm.” Esther sipped her tea thoughtfully. Then she set her cup down and looked at Mabel as if carefully measuring her words.
“Dear, sweet Mabel,” she said. “We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?”
The fairy tale tells Mabel she’s risking loss and grief by letting herself love Faina, but of course we all know that this is the risk involved in simply being alive and loving other living beings. The Snow Child is very much a story about love and loss and vulnerability; about making peace with transience; about saying yes and being generous with your affections and making yourself open and available, even though you know you always risk getting hurt. I really loved that.

Other bits I liked:
Who would think that an adolescent boy would have anything to teach an old woman? But it was Garrett who had led her into the fields and closer to the life she had pictured for herself in Alaska. She could think of no way to explain that to him. With a mother like Esther, surely he could not imagine a woman doing anything against her will, or worse yet, not knowing her own will. It was as if Mabel had been living in a hole, comfortable and safe as it might have been, and he had merely reached down a hand to help her step up into the sunlight. From there she was free to walk where she would.

She could see, now that she had been shown. The sun had disappeared behind them, and the girl pointed across the valley to the mountain slopes aglow in a cool purple-pink. Silhouetted against the sky, tendrils of snow unfurled from the peaks, whipped by what must have been a brutal wind. Here on the rise, though, the air was still. The colors were distant, impossible, untouchable.
That’s what my name means, Faina said, still pointing.
No. That light. Papa named me for the color on the snow when the sun turns.
Alpenglow, Mabel whispered.
She felt the awe of walking into a cathedral, the sense that she was being shown something powerful and intimate, and in its presence must speak softly, if at all. She stared into that color, trying to imagine a father who could name his child for such beauty and then abandon her.
Reviewed at: Rhapsody in Books, Bart’s Bookshelf, Page 247, You’ve GOTTA Read This, She Reads Novels, Buried in Print, Raging Bibliomania, Susan Hated Literature, Jov’s Book Pyramid, Nooks & Crannies

(I’m sure I missed plenty – is yours one of them? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I am so glad you loved this book too. It was one of my favourite reads for last year.

    The winter descriptions are just stunning and you're right a lot of the descriptions are so realistic.

    PS. Managed to finish my book I wanted to read for January to coincide with your challenge!

  2. I loved this book so much. And I like your point about the way Mabel uses the fairy tale, she does get caught up in it to quite an extent, but the way Faina responds to it is both interesting and a lesson somewhat. It counteracts it, as does Esther's opinion, without making Mabel look bad. I'm not sure about rural stereotyping, it's so usual to have a perfect beautiful landscape that the coldness of Alaska changes the whole concept.

  3. I'm not a fairy tale person so I'm glad to see there are some realistic elements to this novel.

  4. I'm so interested in your side comment about the longing of a mother for a child being a storytelling device that can be a tad too prevalent in our culture. I completely agree. Whilst there is beauty in the situation there is an implication that the woman is not whole without the child, and that the child must always be part of the mother to assuage something inside her. I've had to live this situation with my own mother, and it is highly damaging. So its beauty really needs to be qualified, I think!

  5. Have the feeling this is on everyone's best-of-2012 list. One of those books that wouldn't be on my radar if it wasn't for the book blogging community.

  6. Sounds like an interesting book. I also enjoy fairy-tale retellings. I'm going to have to look this book up.

  7. I am so curious now about "it would be awesome to read a story where this desire was less easily to categorise and not as closely connected to a traditional female role" because I can't imagine what that would be; i.e., under what circumstances an adult female would long for a little girl in her life. (Although I find myself these days always longing for a little girl or a little boy, who would be able to help me do all the computer and tv-connection things I can't figure out! LOL)

  8. You always are SO ARTICULATE about books in ways I couldn't ever even touch. I did like this book, but didn't love it. Actually I think I like it more NOW than I did when I first finished it. It took me forever to even write the review because it was so hard for me to decide how I felt about it. It warmed my heart, made me laugh, but confused me too.

  9. Oh, this sounds like it has my name on it. (Actually, it has my mother's name on it: her name is a derivative of Faina, "Fayne," and I've never heard of anyone else with this name.)

  10. I really enjoyed this book - it's such a beautiful, magical story, though I think it was the realistic aspects that I liked the most too. I loved the descriptions of the snowy, frozen landscapes and it was fascinating to see what it was like trying to survive under such difficult conditions.

  11. I've been dithering about reading this book for a while, I don't know why, but I think I have very high expectations of it. Even higher now!

    I am really curious about your side note. I would love it if you could tell more about your alternative novel and what exactly you are considering as a desire which is less easy to categorise, for instance.

  12. I also really loved this book, and felt as if there was something magical and healing about it, which was wonderful, because I listened to the audio version at a time when my heart needed a particular kind of healing as well. I loved the relationship between the women and Faina, but even more, I loved the relationship that she had with Jack. An excellent novel all around.

  13. Farming in Alaska? Probably could have chosen a better climate for that.

  14. Lots of bloggers I have tremendous respect for loved this book, now including you, so I should definitely get to this one.

  15. A couple of Ted Hughes poems sprang to mind when we talked about this book getting both the beauty and hardships of nature. Thought I would share:

    'The Warm and the Cold': http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/ted-hughes/the-warm-and-the-cold/

    'Hawk Roosting': http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/ted-hughes/hawk-roosting/

  16. I wonder if reading this would help with my seasonal despair. It sounds like it might.

  17. Oh, I've been wanting to read this one since it was released, and of course your beautiful words have me even more intent on doing so. I love wintry books, and rural living--part of me wonders if I'd appreciate the mothering aspects of this book more if I were a mother myself. Still, I likely won't wait THAT long to read it.

  18. Hi there, there is a collection of book links happening right now at Carole's Chatter. This time we are collecting links to posts about your favourite historical fiction. Here is the link Your Favourite Historical Fiction Please do pop by and link in – maybe this one? Have a lovely day.

  19. This sounds like the perfect winter read. I've just requested it from the library! Thanks for the recommendation.

  20. This sounds haunting and atmospheric. Love it.

  21. I've just ordered a copy on the strength of this review, thanks Ana :) I think it might be the sort of thing that the 6th form here would like too. If I enjoy, I may even suggest we do it for reading group!

  22. Hi Ana, I've been lurking on your blog for a while and decided to finally jump in today!

    I like what you say about the thawing of winter coinciding with the transformation of the characters - I hadn't quite noticed that. Also love what you say about finding out about a character through the *impact* the character has on the lives of everyone around - that bit reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett's Frances Lymond, a character/series/author I absolutely adore.

    Here's my thoughts on The Snow Child: http://wordsamany.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/the-snow-child-eowyn-ivey-review/

  23. So glad you love this book. Everyone (including myself) started off by saying "I am not a fairy tale person" only to get hooked on Grimm tales and Angela Carter's collection, and this book too! Here's my review:


  24. You make me very glad I bought this book and now I'm really looking forward to reading it myself. The way you've described the wintry parts remind me of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, although it's been years since I read that, although it sounds like this one gets less bleak rather than more so.

  25. Vivienne: yay, very glad to hear it! I hope you enjoyed it :)

    Charlie: Yes, I agree about Faina and Esther being a counterpoint of sorts. I loved how the story managed fantasy and reality in a way that was ambiguous but didn't feel like a cop out.

    Kathy: Do give it a try - I think you might really enjoy it.

    litlove: Yes, exactly. And as a woman who doesn't want children I've had that idea of incompleteness used against me far too many times. I imagine it will only get worse now that I've reached an age when people who want children start to make concrete plans for the near future.

    Alex: I think the cover and the fairy tale connection would have captured my interest anyway, but it's nice to see how successful the book was!

    Loni: I hope you enjoy it if you do!

    Jill: Oh no, I didn't mean a child! Just a more general sort of narrative about wanting someone to be in your life (in a way that's not necessarily romantic) and feeling that the interactions you've had with them changed you, small thought they were. Have you watched the movie Lost in Translation? That's a good example of what I mean. There are a lot of stories like that out there, but I feel that most of them have men as the subjects and women as the objects.

    Sandy: It's funny how that happens sometimes, isn't it?

    Mumsy: What a beautiful name!

    Helen: Yes, the atmosphere and descriptions alone made it worth it. It was a perfect read for this time of the year.

    Helen: I talked about it a little bit in this post. I hope it makes sense!

    Zibilee: I like the word you used, "healing". I can definitely see that.

  26. Tasha: According to the book, although winters are hard the summers make it worth it, because the continuous daylight makes crops grow really fast.

    Heather: I do think you're going to like it!

    Jodie: I really enjoyed reading those - thank you <3

    Jeanne: I hope it does - it did a little bit for me. (PS: You have no idea how much your snow haiku made me laugh :P)

    Heidi: I didn't have trouble with those parts of the story even though the idea of motherhood isn't one I connect with on a personal level. I think that the feeling being alien to me made it more interesting to read about, if that makes sense.

    Emily: I hope you enjoy it!

    Trisha: Yes, haunting is a good word.

    Sarah: Fingers crossed that you enjoy it! And the reading group idea sounds awesome.

    Juhi: First of all, thank you for saying hi! I've not read Dorothy Dunnett, but I've heard lots of good things about her from bloggers I trust, so she's definitely on my list of authors to try. Will add your link!

    JoV: Link added! Angela Carter is also a huge favourite of mine.

    Meghan: Oh yes, that's a good comparison in terms of atmosphere (though Ethan Frome is definitely a much darker story!)

  27. I love fairy tales and retellings! Have been spending some time reading them lately. Sounds like a good one to add to my reading!

  28. I do love fairy tales, both the classics and the modern retellings. I'm adding this to my list.

  29. Glad you liked this as much as I did. I think the relationship between Garrett and Jack/Mabel was my very favorite part of the book--the "snow child" aspect could have gone any number of different ways and I would have been satisfied, but Garrett's role in changing Jack and Mabel's lives was just as crucial, in my opinion. My thoughts (not really a review) are here: http://worducopia.blogspot.com/2013/01/what-im-reading-snow-child-eowyn-ivey.html

  30. Nice plot! This book surely got me interested.

  31. Very nice review. I think The Snow Child is maybe not for everyone but if it works for a certain reader it really works. I DID put this on my list of best reads for 2012. My review is here: http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-snow-child.html

  32. I really loved this one, and at the time I listened to it, I really needed a gentle book. I didn't get too invested in the fact that it could be a fairy tale, because I was always waiting for an explanation of just where Faina had come from. I loved the writing as well. I guess it was just a case of the right book at the right time for me.

    Dwayne Johnston (Seattle DUI Attorneys)


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