"Then they came to a frightening place, a stand of tall spruce where the air was dead and the shadows cold."Do you remember the Russian fairytale about a barren couple who molds a child from snow? The snow child is their daughter until she melts in spring. It was Mabel's favorite story when she was young, but she'd forgotten how the grim ending echoes her personal narrative. Mabel fled to Alaska with Jack after the loss of their stillborn baby.
"Was that why they had come north - to build a new life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply shift away in the wind."Jack fears that starting over in the wild frontier was a horrible mistake. He's not a young man anymore and farming is much harder than it was back in Pennsylvania. They risk absolute failure. Mabel and Jack still take delight in the first snowfall and craft a little girl out of snow. The next day, the snow girl is gone, leaving a track of small footprints into the woods. When Mabel insists she's seen a young girl darting amongst the snowy trees, Jack believes his lonely wife has succumbed to winter madness...until he sees the girl too.
A perfect pairing of fantasy and realism makes you believe. The travails of farming, trapping and housework are described in gritty detail, but there are poetic moments of transformative beauty too. Faini, the snow girl, is named for the twilight glow of an alpine sunset. Real or not, she is a wonderfully strong character, who lives off the land. The true heroes, however, are Mabel, Jack and their quirky neighbors, who work to exhaustion but still love their frontier existence.
The landscape reminded me of Maine and was true to my memories of Alaska, where I conducted research for my master's thesis. Even mud season is rendered with a naturalist's eye and poetic rhythm without slowing the pace:
"Here and there patches of snow still clung to the earth. Dwarf dogwood leaves and fern heads sprouted from the damp ground. Soon he heard the roar of the river, and when he neared the water, he saw soft, silvery pussy willows budding. He went to pick some from the limbs to bring back to Mabel, then remembered his grim task and kept walking."
Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought my beautiful hardback copy from Gulf of Maine Books last summer but saved if for our first big snowfall. Thank you, Pamela, for the recommendation. Cat and Lisa, thanks for urging me to post this review.
SCBWI Watch: I'll be in NYC this weekend for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference. Meg Rosoff and Julie Andrews are speakers. Is anyone else going to SCBWI?