In Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, Jack and Mabel are a middle-aged married couple who have moved to Alaska in the 1920′s to attempt the successful farming of a homestead. The land is harsh and unforgiving, and though it is of their own choosing, the couple is isolated from family, and have made no friends in the tiny community. They are also increasingly adrift from each other as they struggle to reach a meaningful balance within their troubled and childless marriage. Mabel is still deeply grieving their stillborn infant, and Jack cannot make a go of the homestead unassisted, but tries to when Mabel insists the couple keep to themselves. In the gift of an unexpectedly playful evening, Jack and Mabel create a child in the snow, and are stunned when she seemingly comes to life.
Ivey quickly creates a winning storyline that mixes hard reality and fantasy in this captivating début. The descriptions of the wild Alaskan landscape with its heavy snows, bitter cold and stark beauty mirror elements of the couple’s daily life and relationships. Jack and Mabel are both sympathetic and complex characters and fine writing by Ivey puts the reader firmly in the middle of their marital despair. The pair develop, both together and separately, based on their experiences with Faina (whom they think of as their own daughter), the land and burgeoning relationships with their neighbors, George and Esther. Their lives are changed in surprising ways as they uncover more about the Faina’s mysterious identity, and try to come to terms with her human and supernatural underpinnings. In the end I wasn’t completely sure what was going on with Faina, which was a little distracting, but ultimately the charm and the strengths of this fairytale re-imagined won out over minor confusions and quibbles. Recommended.