Monday, February 6, 2017

The Snow Child: A Review

Image result for the snow child
Truth time: I've honestly been saving up this book for a while now, in the hopes that if I waited long enough, I could read it when it was actually snowing outside! What a perfectly planned #bookstagram moment, amirite? Unfortunately, Washington hadn't seen much snow yet, and I got tired of waiting. 

Lo and behold, yesterday night, we got like five inches of frosty goodness, and now I'm writing this blogpost while my younger siblings are home from school, kicking myself that I couldn't have waited just a little longer, but totally loving the fact that the topic is still Insta-relevant! 

The forecast is still calling for a few scattered snow showers for the rest of the day, too, so there's still plenty of hope to fit in other frost-worthy reads. But, for now, here's The Snow Child! 

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, follows the lives of fifty-something homesteaders Jack and Mabel, attempting to start life afresh in the snowy expanses of the Alaska wilderness in the 1920s. Disheartened by the difficulties of starting a farm, and dismayed by the ever-increasing and lonely darkness that seems to cloud their lives with the onset of bleak winter, they start to lose hope. However, everything changes when one snowy night, the couple decides to build a little snow child in their backyard.

Blending magical realism with the lush and dynamic Alaskan landscape, this book really does a great job with evoking a spirit of connectivity and responsibility in the relationship between people and nature. In truth, while it may be a retelling of the original "The Snow Child," reveling in the magical realism of its Russian fairy tale origins, the true magic comes through in the captivating images of its wintry Alaskan setting. 

And, of course, as someone who lives for lifestyle descriptions, I had to focus on the food, too. What they ate, in particular, was integral to the setting, as it needed to illustrate the starkness of their surroundings while reorienting Mabel's role as a caregiver, as well as creating a definite measuring point for how well the little family was getting along: times of scarcity were reflected in unseasoned moose steaks and old potatoes, while times of plenty, in fresh vegetables plucked from a field, or berries foraged from the surrounding forest. Times of initiative were found in feeding flour to sourdough starters, while times of sharing were tins of homemade jam and swigs of raspberry moonshine right from the bottle. 

It honestly made me want to take up homesteading, until I remembered that it's not the turn of the 20th Century anymore, and that I like having access to grocery stores (and -without spoiling the novel- better healthcare). But the food sounded so entrancingly homegrown, sustainable, welcome and worth sharing... and the world around them so dynamic, blooming, and inviting. Beautiful, complete imagery of the nature through which our homesteaders hoped to carve a life, reminded me of Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, in the way that the trees and rocks and animals surrounding the story seemed to be a main character all in its own right. 

Speaking of the main characters... they annoyed me. As in, almost all of them. Mabel was defeatist and overly clingy, Jack was obtuse and uncommunicative in the worst ways of the stereotypes of grizzly mountain men, and Faina - our mystery blonde child of the woods, the frosty figure brought about by the magical transformation of their snow child (or so they think) that Mabel and Jack take under their wings - was a little too otherworldly to convincingly portray a young girl. 

In truth, Faina was less of a full character, and more of a plot point: she wasn't so much a real person, as a touchstone for multiple other members of the book. While the story went to significant lengths to diverge in narrator, giving voice to Jack, Mabel, and Garret - the young son of neighbors who help our couple establish themselves - the voice of Faina is left as deliberately ambiguous as possible, not even including full quotation marks when she speaks, but blending the sound of her voice as directly into the story as possible so as to make it indefinite. As a result, she served more as object than human: child, wife, fairy tale come to life, spirit of the woods and one with nature, but never truly herself. 

In this way, it was a little unorthodox of a fairy tale retelling. Typically, adaptations of that sort involve the re-framing of the narrative from the main character's point of view, but to have the orientation of the story essentially involving the erasure of the person-hood of its primary magical feature made it a little difficult to read. Especially the grammatical functions of positioning Faina as a pseudo-person.

Still, this allowed for the greater development of the magical realism the story was aiming for. The many conflicting narratives of how Faina came to be, and be found, and whether she truly was a lost little girl or a force of nature all in her own right, allowed for the sense of ambiguity that allowed her to fill all descriptions, instead of resolutely settling her in just one. She could be a little girl, because that's what Jack saw her as; she could be a fairy tale figure, because that's what Mabel saw her as. Their accounts couldn't fully conflict if she was never fully defined, in a sort of Schrodinger's paradox that allowed the story to move forward.

Final Verdict: While the main characters could get a little irritating, they weren't the dynamic focus point of this bewitchingly mystical tale. A solid adaptation of a well-known short story, this retelling finds its true magic in evoking the beautiful wilds of Alaska. 

What is your favorite snowy day memory? What book setting has made you want to travel?  Let me know, in the comments below!


  1. Beautiful review. I read this last year and it landed in my favorite for 2016. I enjoyed the fairy-tale quality and the sort of ethereal depiction of Faina.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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  2. Oooh I'm really intrigued by this book but hadn't actually read a full review till now so THANK YOU FOR THIS. I don't think it's probably for me, buuuut I am kind of captivated by the Russian influences and Alaskan too. YAS. I love those. And I think magical realism is gorgeous. Pity the characters are irritating to read though, bleh. Anyway! I'm glad you still found a lot to love about it! (And PS I've never seen snow but I want to someday!)