Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, is set in 1920s Alaska, where Mabel and her husband Jack are planning to start a new life. Mabel is still grieving for her still-born child and sees the move to Alaska as a chance to come to terms with the fact that she’s never going to be a mother. But things are proving to be a lot harder than she expected – clearing the land for farming is too much work for Jack, food is becoming scarce, and Mabel is beginning to feel lonely and desperate.
When the first snow of the winter arrives, Mabel and Jack decide to build a child from snow. By morning the snow child has gone and Jack catches a glimpse of a little girl running through the trees. But as Faina slowly becomes a part of Jack and Mabel’s lives, they begin to wonder: is she a real child or has she been created from two people’s hope and love?
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inspired by an old Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. The story has been retold many times over the years but this book takes a fresh approach by combining the feel of a timeless fairy tale with the harsh realities of life as a homesteader in early 20th century Alaska.
The novel has a very small number of characters, which is to be expected considering that the area of Alaska in which Mabel and Jack lived was very sparsely populated. Something I thought the author managed to convey very well was the complete isolation Jack and Mabel experienced during their early days in Alaska and the many dangers they faced, including starvation, ‘cabin fever’, and the risks of injury or sickness in a place where even the closest town is too small to have a doctor.
Among the few other people we do meet are a neighbouring family, George and Esther Benson and their three sons. I particularly loved the character of Esther: a woman who knew what had to be done to survive in the wilderness and was prepared to do it. And as for Faina herself, I thought she was a fascinating character, mysterious and otherworldly but with a charm and vulnerability that made it easy to understand why a lonely middle-aged couple would welcome her into their lives.
But my favourite thing about The Snow Child is the stunning setting Eowyn Ivey has chosen for her story. Her knowledge and love of Alaska comes through in the beautifully written descriptions of the snowy landscapes, complete with frozen rivers, swirling snowflakes and icy mountain ridges. It’s all very atmospheric and the perfect backdrop for such an enchanting and magical story.
The Snow Child will be published in February 2012 and I can promise you it’s worth waiting for. It really is a lovely story and a very impressive debut novel from Eowyn Ivey.
Thanks to Headline for sending me a review copy of this book.