The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
• Sam Hawksmoor review
I think I must be a sucker for snow stories – even though I detest the cold. There is something strangely alluring about life in the Alaskan wilderness, about people who strive to make something out of nothing, literally carve an existence out of the harsh land with its long winters and short summers filled with mosquitoes and savage wild animals. Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick was one such tale beginning with tragedy and all through the book you waited for the gun to explode. The Snow Child is like that, you wait for tragedy to strike. This is a tale about Jack and Mabel in the 1920’s, who have left the easy options of Pennsylvania for life on the harsh frontier. A childless couple, a stubborn husband and a woman who is well educated and could have had quite a different life, but instead have chosen the solitude of Alaska.
Mabel’s only stillborn child is a ghost here. It caused a gulf between the couple and now they are seemingly old before their time in their early fifties, almost out of any means to make a go of this farmstead. Jack is felling trees, pulling the stumps to prepare the fields they’ll need to grow the potatoes that will keep them alive through the winter and he’s foolishly refused Mabel’s help to plant or work alongside him out of misplaced pride. Now she is confined to the drafty cold wood cabin to slowly go a little crazy with boredom and worry, making pies to sell to the townsfolk.
In a moment of brief happiness in the first snowfall of winter they make a little snowgirl in the yard, dress it up and give it mittens and a scarf.
In the morning the mittens and scarf are gone. Jack believes he has seen a little girl in the woods wearing the scarf and mittens but can’t find any trace of her. Mabel finds human tracks at the edge of their property. Mabel believes they have made a snow child as in a Russian folk tale she remembers from childhood. But Jack later discovers the grim truth. A dead father who drank himself to death on moonshine and an abandoned feral child who cannot be tamed.
Slowly the child, whose name they eventually learn is Faina, comes to trust and love them, but always leaves each summer to follow the retreating snow and Caribou. Their growing relationship is written with extraordinary delicacy.
'The child brought the smell of snow in with her, and the air in the cabin cooled and brightened. Mabel unwrapped the scarf from her neck, took her mittens, fur hat and the wool coat. The child let her do this and Mabel hugged the clothes to her chest, felt the chill of winter, the coase wool, and the silky brown fur.
What were you doing?
I was drawing, Mabel said. Would you like to see?'
Their gregarious hardy neighbours Esther and George believe the snow child is a figment of Mabel’s imagination, even Jack doubts she exists sometimes, but slowly, as the seasons move on, the child grows closer, revealing herself only to Jack and Mabel, is never tamed, but lets Mabel do things for her and in return she brings berries and wild creatures she has trapped. How can she survived in the harsh winter? It seems impossible but she knows every inch, every stream and has a tame wild fox to accompany her. You can never see her but she can see you.
|| The Russian folk tale ends in tragedy and Mabel is fearful that this one will too. All her married life she has longed to love a child and be loved in return but Faina is this truly wild beautiful elfin girl that can’t stand confinement or the heat of a wood fire. Mabel and Jack long to tame her and then one day young Garret, their wayward neighbour’s son discovers she is real and a better hunter than him.
You read these beautiful words and descriptions in The Snow Child with endless trepidation that tragedy will come – just as in the Russian folktale. You really don’t want to it to end at all. There are two love stories here. Mabel and Jack’s love for a fairy sprite and Garret’s youthful passion. Sometimes to love something or someone is to kill it and you read with fascination or dread and wonderment at the skill of this young writer to bring this harrowing story to life. A beautiful tale.
© Sam Hawksmoor March 2012