Author: Eowyn Ivey
Finished on: 14 April 2017
Where did I get this book: A book club read
The story of Eowyn Ivey’s journey to becoming a fiction writer is almost as moving as the story of the snow child herself.
Ivey was a journalist writing for The Frontiersman newspaper in Alaska, when she realised that “I had been lying to myself: I never loved journalism or non-fiction”. And she left her job at the paper, to work in a bookshop by day and hone her craft as a writer of fiction by night.
She spent many years looking for the right story, until she found, and was inspired by, the Russian fairy story Little Daughter Of The Snow, translated by none other than my beloved Arthur Ransome. This was the seed of what became the The Snow Child.
I say almost as moving, because this book is something special indeed when it comes to tugging on the heartstrings. As I read the last couple of chapters, my daughter came downstairs concerned that something must be terribly wrong, because of my sobbing.
The story starts as a tale of acute loneliness and sadness. It is 1920 and Mabel has moved to Alaska in an attempt to escape the heartbreak of a stillborn baby. Her husband Jack is absent both physically and emotionally, trying to make a success of their new farm in the wilderness. It’s a brave move to open a book with the attempted suicide of your main character, but Ivey pulls it off with an impressive delicacy, lightness and lack of drama. This becomes the foundation upon which the events of the story are built.
As Mabel and Jack find a way to enjoy each other, and be playful, once again, they find a silver lining in the dreaded long winters. They indulge in a snowball fight and build a snow figure together. The next day marks the first appearance of Faina, the snow child, who may or may not be the magical product of Mabel and Jack’s love. A real strength of the book is its ambiguity on this point. And the truth is that it doesn’t matter whether Faina is a real girl, or a fantastic creature. What matters is how she, and the people around her, feel. The love, comfort and meaning that they find in each other.
Ivey unapologetically revels in the fairy tale elements of her story. You can practically see the former journalist breaking free of her non-fiction chains, and flying as high as she can away from the restrictions of reality.
Mabel and Jack also form a close bond with a neighbouring family. An unexpected friendship develops between Mabel and Esther, the mother of three boys and matriarch of their chaotic household. This relationship is every bit as beautiful as that which Mabel discovers through becoming a mother to Faina. Esther, with her overalls and her strident pragmatism, may be a stereotype, but she is no less irresistible for that. The vital and powerful role that female friendship plays in making a good life is depicted with real potency.
It would be remiss of me not to mention how staggeringly good Ivey is on the descriptions of Alaskan landscapes. But what is really impressive is how she conveys the setting as everything from cruel and unforgiving, to saturated with magic and wonder, depending on the emotional states of her characters. She must be a loss indeed to The Frontiersman, with this skill for vivid evocation of place.
And for such a whimsical story, Ivey’s writing is surprisingly simple and down-to-earth. It’s a winning combination to tell a deeply moving story with a total lack of sentimentality.
I have a deep aversion to trite or twee ‘meaning of life’ narratives. Ugh. But somehow Ivey slips through the net with this book that yes, is actually all about how to get through life, and find some kind of happiness and fulfilment along the way. With crystal clear language, and by avoiding anything approaching mawkishness, Ivey pulls off a bright, wild and gorgeously beautiful book.