Sometime last year, I listened to an episode of Myths & Legends podcast (Ep. 96 – Russian Folklore: Cold as Ice) that discussed folktales about snow children. It got me wondering about Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child. I wondered if Ivey’s novel was similar to the stories I heard on the podcast. I got curious and was tempted to read the novel, which I’d bought in the previous year because bloggers and booktubers were all speaking of it and saying how great the story and the prose are.
But I procrastinated on reading the book and didn’t do so until January this year thinking that winter may be the best time to read it. It was and it was pretty good.
It’s the 1920s in America — the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties with great outrageous parties filled with pump and style. But we get none of that glitz and glamour of the 1920s in The Snow Child. Instead, the story sits us on a quiet homestead in Alaska where an old couple live.
Mabel and Jack had moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska to try living on the land in the wild, for something new — to escape the loss of a child and their barrenness. The couple have always wanted children but were never blessed with any, so Mabel urged Jack to make them move to Alaska to escape the scrutiny of family and friends, who were all spilling with children.
In Alaska, the couple make life as best they can but as Jack gets older, the hard land of Alaska’s wilderness becomes harder for him to tend alone. But despite their worries — no children, tending the land — the couple’s tenderness for each other never withers. One night, in a burst of playfulness, the two decide to build a snow child. The next day, Jack notices that the snow child they built is missing but a pair of small footprints lead away from it and into the trees. Later, both he and Mabel see a girl flitting among the trees with a fox. Jack pursues the child. He doesn’t catch her, she continues to return to the couple’s property and soon becomes familiar with them, form a friendship, and become the child Mabel and Jack has longed for. (Goodreads)
This book wasn’t what I expected, not that I read it expecting much. But, because of the reviews I’d read, I expected to fall in love with the prose and be convinced that it’s my new favorite book by its end. But that didn’t happen.
It took a while for me to become invested in the story. The beginning did not draw me in, probably because it begins with Mabel’s voice and at a dark moment in her life when she’s struggling with the lack of what she wants the most — a child. I sympathized with her but wasn’t invested (probably the wrong word but I can’t think of another) in her struggle and found it hard to read the first couple pages of the book. I think it’s when the story switched to Jack’s perspective, when the snow child appears, that my interest sparked and I felt the pull of the story and began to admire the prose.
It is a beautifully written book, though not the sort of prose that I often fall in love with. Still, I do appreciate how it’s written and how Ivey structured the story. Though I struggled with the slow pace, I think it fits the story. It fits the characters, the setting, and the quietness of the story. This one shouldn’t be hurried (just as how nature shouldn’t be hurried), and it wasn’t.
“What a different truth he found. Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle…”
As I read, I felt transported to Alaska to a homestead deep in the woods where there’s nothing but silence and the soft sounds of woodland creatures in the snow. I both loved and hated the setting. I was amazed by it. I was drawn to it. I wanted to experience it. It felt both vast and, at times, oppressive. It felt wild and foreign, which ignited my curiosity and made me want to book a flight to Alaska to see what exactly Ivey was describing.
But I disliked the setting as well. It’s cold, relentless, forbidding, and harsh despite the beauty, magic, magnificence, and lure of it. It made me want to stay away as much as it made me want to experience it. It felt alive and its Ivey’s writing that brought it to life for me, though I’ve only ever seen snapshots of Alaska in photos and have never been so deep in the woods or snow or cold or isolation as these characters are.
I like how the folktale of the snow child is weaved into the story and I enjoyed seeing how the snow child’s appearance affected Mabel and Jack and even their friends. I was interested in the characters’ musings on raising a child and whether or not a child needed just basic necessities or was it important to also nurture a child, and I liked that both the characters and the readers wondered if Faina is indeed a wild spirit presented as a child/human. The end did not convince me either way.
Of the characters, I liked none of them, not that it’s necessary to like the characters to enjoy a story. Sometimes it affects my enjoyment of a story, but with The Snow Child, my interest was focused on the setting and what exactly Faina is that it didn’t bother me that I didn’t like the characters. Except for Esther, the greatest friend, can’t help but like her.
The perspective switches mostly between Mabel and Jack’s, but sometimes we get others too. I don’t know why, but I disliked Mabel and didn’t often like to read her parts. I think this is weird of me because I can’t pinpoint why. However, I do like how she and Jack develop throughout the story and love that parenting crept up on them without them realizing.
I may have struggled with the beginning, but the story is great and well written and worth the read. I think it’s the perfect book for winter to read while curled by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate while the world outside is swathed in snow.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I think it’s worth it for the story and the transportive power of the writing.
New word learned:
“the color on the snow when the sun turns” — The Snow Child
Definition from Merriam-Webster dictionary:
“a reddish glow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains”
It’s one of my favorite things in the world and I’m glad to have the name of it.