Early in The Snow Child, a foreshadowing-laden letter asks why parents tell their children fairy tales. So few of them have happy endings that the letter-writer suggests people should just make up their own pleasant outcomes. But there’s no happily-ever-after in Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, as with the Russian folktale it’s based on. Its charm lies in blending beauty, magic, and happiness with tragedy in a way that merges fantasy with the hardships of real life.
Set in 1920s Alaska, The Snow Child follows Jack and Mabel, an aging couple who moved to the territories to find a new life away from the pain and shame caused by Mabel’s miscarriage. While they dreamed of sharing hard-but-rewarding work, they find the land harsher than advertised, and slip into deep depression. In a rare moment of shared cheer, the couple builds a girl out of snow, and the next day, they find their creation gone, replaced by a child who takes up residence in the woods near their homestead.
The Snow Child is coy about the girl’s nature. Her dialogue never features quotation marks, as if to imply conversations with her are less real than those with other characters. For much of the book, there’s no evidence that she exists to anyone besides the lonely Jack and Mabel, and they’re torn between fretting that she’s an orphan they must save from the wilderness, or being convinced that she’s some sort of sprite they must keep from melting away with the spring. The mystery feels less important than Ivey’s character portraits. The story spans more than a decade, and provides lovely looks at the comforts of old relationships and the fire of new love, along with exploring the challenges of children becoming adults and of adults remembering childish joy.
Ivey grew up in Alaska and still lives there, and she pours her love for the place into her writing. The scenery itself seems to change with Jack and Mabel’s mood and fortunes. While they start out seeing it as a place of cruel weather, inhospitable terrain, and indifferently vicious animals, it blooms into a world of secret wonders where patience and persistence rewards them with remarkable sights.
The folktale of an old man and woman who make a child out of snow has many different endings. All of them are told early in The Snow Child, giving the ending a feeling of heavy-handed inevitability. But the moral is that all beautiful things are fleeting and finite, and people who gain joy from experiencing them shouldn’t feel too much sorrow for their passing.