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