Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

This magical story drew me deep into its world with the enchanting, almost photo-quality sharpness and loveliness of the imagery, the profound tenderness of the feelings between the two main protagonists, and the mystery of the snow child herself, who helps turn the forbidding prospect of winter in Alaska into months filled with renewal, love, and beauty.

Mabel and Jack have moved to the wilderness near the Wolverine River in Alaska in the 1920’s to escape the emptiness of their lives back in Pennsylvania, with its memories of their still-borne child ten years earlier. They thought Alaska would be a land of milk and honey, with abundant game and fish for easy harvesting. But the truth was that “Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle….” And in Alaska the two grow even farther apart; Jack struggles with the land all day to make sure they have sustenance for the winter, and Mabel feels trapped in the cold, bleak, and dark cabin.

But when the snow came, heralding the onset of winter that initial year, for a moment while Mabel gazed at Jack outside she remembered what she felt before:

When she first fell in love with Jack, she dreamed she could fly, that on a warm, inky-black night she had pushed off the grass with her bare feet to float among the leafy treetops and stars in her nightgown. The sensation had returned.”

She went outside, and she and Jack had a light-hearted snowball fight, and then decided to build a snowman, only instead, they made it a snowgirl. Mabel wrapped it with knitted mittens and a scarf. The next morning, the show child had been knocked over, and the scarf and mittens were gone. And a mysterious little girl came into their lives, often accompanied by a fox she had made her pet.

Named Faina, the girl returns with the snow every year and leaves when it melts. She never shows herself to anyone else, and George and Esther Benson, neighbors who become good friends of Jack and Mabel, think Mabel has “cabin fever.” But the two couples help each other out, and George and Esther’s youngest son Garrett becomes like a son to Jack and Mabel. And then one day, after six years, while Faina is with Jack and Mabel, the Bensons come unannounced, and they finally meet Faina. Thereafter Faina starts acting more like a real girl instead of a fantasy, and affects the lives of all of them. But Mabel and Jack still suspect Faina is the snow child of the Russian fairytale “Snegurochka” (which inspired Arthur Ransome’s The Little Daughter of the Snow), “born to them of ice and snow and longing…” and the ending of that story frightens Mabel. Is it possible that we can choose our own endings, Mabel wonders, or will the story wend its inexorable path through their lives, with no one able to change the inevitable?

Discussion: There are some wonderfully memorable scenes in this book. There is the night, for example, that Jack comes home with ice skates for the three of them, and they go out to the frozen river:

Without a word, Jack and Mabel each took one of the child’s hands and skated up the river, following the curves of the bank. Faina squealed in delight. Even through the cushion of their thick coats, Jack could feel her small arm folded in his, and it was as if his very heart were cradled in those joined elbows. The ice was like wet glass and they glided fast enough to create a breeze against their faces. He looked to Mabel and saw tears running down her cheeks and wondered if it was the cold that made her eyes water.”

Or when Mabel, after eight years in Alaska, watches a frolicking river otter and realizes she has changed:

It wasn’t just the river otter. She once spied a gray-brown coyote slinking across a field with his mouth half-open as if in laughter. She watched Bohemian waxwings like twilight shadows flock from tree to tree as if some greater force orchestrated their flight. She saw a white ermine sprint past the barn with a fat vole in her mouth. And each time, Mabel felt something leap in her chest. Something hard and pure.

She was in love. Eight years she’d lived here, and at last the land had taken hold of her heart and she could comprehend some small part of Faina’s wildness.”

And the relationship between Jack and Mabel is so moving: not the wild passion of a young couple, but the tenderness and support of a couple that knows each other, and maintains a love for each other in spite of the challenges that the years have brought. It has some of the most romantic moments, without being in any way erotic, that I have ever read.

Evaluation: I can’t possibly convey how beautiful and absorbing this story is. From the exquisite snapshots of the wintry setting – sparkling from “frost with its feathery crystals” and “fresh snow that glittered and glowed silver in the moonlight”; to the renewal of spring when “the bog violets bloomed purple and white along the creeks and cow moose nuzzled their newborns”; to the warmth and solicitude between Jack and Mabel, and their gratification for the love and friendship of the Bensons, this incredible book captured my heart and astonished me by the insightful depiction of emotions by its young author. This is absolutely a “best read” of the year.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012

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23 Responses

  1. Lovely review. How nice that you enjoyed it so much.
    I’ve seen a movie based on the Russian fairy tale when I was a child and loved it but didn’t know what it was and always hoped to find it again.
    It’s only last year I rediscovered it and then The Snow Child came out. I really want to read it, your description makes it sound wonderful. It’s seems it is very well written too. I like the way you describe the relationship between Jack and Mabel and the imagery.

  2. Wow. I’ve read a lot of reviews, but none have quite expressed the dearness and the beauty like yours. I’m going to have to read it, aren’t I?

  3. What a beatuiful review! I never thought of this as being sort of a love story between the couple as well. Unfortunately, I let the netgalley expire and now it’s been archived but I’ll have to get a copy of this!

  4. Like they said! I am not sure which is better, your review or the prospect of reading this book!

  5. I so want to read this one, and it’s been on my list for about 2 months now! I think I am going to try to find it on audio if I can. It sounds like it was excellent, and I can’t imagine not loving a book that you considered one of the best of the year. Fantastic review today. I am off to see if I can grab this one!

  6. I girlfriend from my book club read this and had much the same to say about it (maybe not as beautifully put, as you). I’m adding this to my must read list today.

  7. Ooh, a best read of the year – I need to try to get to it soon.

  8. I’ve had my eye on this one for awhile…you’re making it even more appealing!

  9. Everyone seems to be loving this book. I haven’t picked it up because the whole premise seems so hokey to me. I guess I need to wait until I’m in a far less cynical state of mind to give it a try.

    • Don’t know if you ended up reading this book yet or not, but I have to tell you I felt the same way. It sounded hokey and I could not believe I was reading it. And yet…. Oh my is this a delicious, lovely, well-written book that will stay with me for a long while. I’m eager for my book club to read it. In fact, I wandered into this website because I wanted to stay in the land of this book just a little while longer having finished it last night at 1:30 am.
      There are 4 types of love that are enchanting in this story: the exquisite love between an older married couple, parents’ love for a child who has her own mind as to how her life should be lived, a beautiful love between a young man and this young woman who is as untamed as the Alaska of the setting and finally the love between good friends.
      I am in a hugely cynical phase in my life right now— I get where you might be coming from and yet, I really loved this book. The author did not confirm my cynicism, she just took me along on her journey.
      Hope you enjoy it.

  10. What a beautiful review! I read THE SNOW CHILD last month and loved it as well. The writing was absolutely breathtaking.

  11. Beautiful review for a beautiful book….I loved it too!

  12. I cannot wait to read this one! You’ve made me want to read it even more!

  13. Wow!! I’ve been seeing this one around a lot lately–lots of praise and finally some mixed reviews but I love the way you describe the imagery in this one. Torn… I do love magical realism, though!

  14. Loved your review~~added to my TBR list!

  15. YAY!!! So glad to hear that. I heard a little rumor that someone in my book club is picking this!

  16. Jill, this was sounding pretty good until I got to the part where you implied that Faina was a fantasy girl. As you know, I’m not very fond of fantasies that don’t involve me and a supermodel or two! Anyway, glad you found an early best-of type book already this year–those are always pleasant surprises.

  17. Every review I read of this book makes me want to read it more. Sounds absolutely enchanting and beautiful.

  18. This sounds like a book I would really like. You did a lovely job with the review.

  19. I must read this … everyone who has read it just raves about it and it sounds like it has all the qualities you want in a engrossing book.

  20. A best read for the year? Already? Added this to my wish list as soon as I finished reading. I love that you found it romantic but not erotic. It sounds magical.

  21. Sigh, I so need this book. Beautiful review!

  22. I have realised you love this book so much Jill. Sounds magical… I think it’s worth me buying a copy of this.

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