Let it snow

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This lovely modern fairytale is that rarity – a book that lives up to the hype. There have been many reviews, in both print and on blog over the past couple of months. Without exception I think, all have been glowing and gushing about this book – I’ll now add mine to the collection…

Jack and Mabel are homesteaders in their fifties, having retreated into the Alaskan wilderness to lose themselves after the death of their baby, who was still born. Both are still suffering, Mabel especially, mostly being confined to the cabin while Jack works the land. Each of them is lost in their own sadness.

That night in bed, she had a heightened awareness of him, of the scent of straw and spruce boughs in his hair and beard, the weight of him on the creaky bed, the sound of his slow, tired breaths. He lay on his side, turned away from her. She reached out, thinking to touch his shoulder, but instead lowered her arm and lay in the darkness staring at his back.
‘Do you think we’ll make it through winter?’ she asked.
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was asleep She rolled away and faced the log wall.
When he spoke, Mabel wondered if it was grogginess or emotion that made his voice so gravelly.
‘We don’t have much choice, do we?’

Then one day it snows, and in a moment of uncharacteristic playfulness, they have a snowball fight, and build a snow figure which Jack carves into the shape of a young girl. The next morning, the snow girl is gone, and there are small footprints going into the forest. The over days and months that follow, they see fleeting glimpses of a girl running between the trees, followed by a red fox.

The Snow Child of was inspired by Arthur Ransome’s re-telling of the Russian folktale, Little Daughter of the Snow, which I re-read last week. Ransome’s version is tragic, and Mabel is familiar with it – a book of Russian fairytales having been a childhood favourite.  Her sister sends her the book, and in her letter she comments…

What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel?  To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?

Mabel is determined that the girl could be the daughter she and Jack never had, even if she is a child built from snow.

I won’t tell any more – I’ll leave you to read it if you wish and make up your own minds about Faina the snow girl – or not, for the author is absolutely brilliant at making her seem like a feral child surviving in the wilderness at one moment, and then an ethereal sprite born of snowflakes, in an instant. Is gaining the unconditional love of would-be adoptive parents the transformational force that occurs in so many fairy-tales where a magical being changes into a human one?  Ivey’s light yet sure touch with these possibilities make reading this novel a magical experience.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters.  They have to endure many hardships to make a go of it as homesteaders, and they are not just physical ones. Before Faina’s arrival it would be hard to see them surviving for long on their own in this wintery wilderness.  It is wonderful to see them come into bloom again after years of dormancy – I was so happy for them, yet knowing the fate of Ransome’s snowgirl, scared too.

Contrasting with Jack and Mabel are their nearest neighbours, the Bensons, who live a good wagon ride away. Esther is a big-hearted woman, and provides Mabel with much relief from her cabin fever and luckily the two women get on like houses on fire.

The other star of this novel is the landscape of Alaska itself. We really feel that we’re there back in the 1920s with Jack and Mabel, experiencing the long, cold winters, the frozen forests, and all too brief spring and summers. Farming may be hard, but nature itself has much to offer if you know where to look for it all year round.

I was delighted to see a quote from Ali Shaw, whose latest modern fairy tale I reviewed here on the back, which reinforced how magical this book was for me.  This is a lovely, lovely book, and my first five star one of the year. I hope you’ll love it too.  (10/10)  

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Pub 1st Feb by Headline Review. Hardback, 432 pages (including the Arthur Ransome story)

13 thoughts on “Let it snow

  1. sakura says:

    I’ve only read Simon S’ review of this book and it looks like it’s going to be huge! I wasn’t so sure about the premise but I think I may have to give this one a go (especially since it got your first 5 stars this year!)

    • gaskella says:

      Sakura – This book has it all – sadness, love and hope, plus the is she or isn’t she real snow girl, and the writing is wonderfully evocative. I hope you do like it when/if you read it.

  2. savidgereads says:

    Lovely review Annabel. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful book, as you know (and thanks to Sakura above for the mention too), and one which I just got totally lost in and simply couldn’t put down. I loved the magical elements, the is she real isnt she real aspect, the landscape but most of all the tale of Jack and Mabel. That snowball scene I just loved!

    Oh and small plug (very cheeky I know) but Eowyn and Ali are both on the latest episode of The Readers so do have a listen.

    • gaskella says:

      I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to the latest podcast – but will turn the telly off later to do so! Ali is doing another event in Abingdon next month with the Abingdon writers group, and I’m going as a hanger on (not being a member of the writers group), really looking forward to it.

  3. farmlanebooks says:

    I”m not surprised to see that you’ve given it 10/10. It was a magical book and I think almost everyone is going to love it. I wonder if any 2012 books are going to be better than this?

  4. Ellie says:

    Hi Annabel – thought I’d return the visit! Another rave review, hooray! I adored this book from start to finish so I’m so happy to see it getting so much praise… It’s pretty unusual for me to be completely in love with every single character, and I thought those little sweet moments between them just rang with love and friendship and tenderness. And you’re right, I was completely conflicted as to whether Faina was an ‘ethereal sprite born of snowflakes’ (LOVE that description) or just a really tough kid braving it on her own. Absolutely beautiful… This is where second-hand bookselling sucks, if I was a new bookseller I’d be pushing it on anyone and everyone round about now! 🙂

  5. Mona says:

    So excited to see your praise for this book! Thank you for your review.

    I saw it on the Waterstones’ list and added it to my to-read list on a whim – I read a variation of the snow child myth when I was in school. I loved it then but I’ve never seen any modern retellings of it so this intrigued me right away. But the positive reviews is revving up my anticipation! 🙂

  6. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Interesting question about unconditional love, I hadn’t thought of this though perhaps perceived it on a much deeper level – I used to have a huge poster in my bedroom which my father recently reminded me of (I had forgotten about it) which carried the quote “If you love something set it free, if it comes back, it is yours, if it doesn’t, it never was.”

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