Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey should be read in winter by the fire. Set in 1920s frontier Alaska, this stunning debut is either historical fiction or magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Although based on a fairytale, The Snow Child was written for adults who never outgrew their love for a good story.
"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."
Eowyn Ivey
Author Ewyn Ivey grew up in Alaska and is raising her family in the wilderness there. Her fascinating bio is here. The Snow Child (2012) is not only impressive for a debut, it's one of the best books I've ever read. It would make an excellent gift or a book group pick. I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

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?


Elizabeth said...

I started reading it and failed to make progress (but I had bought it at Heathrow for the plane....!)
You make me think I should try again.
Do hope you have warmed up a little.
Last week was tough even here in NYC.

prince snow farm said...

Thanks Sarah! I have been on a reading binge and welcome suggestions! Just finished The Light Between Oceans and The Help...your photo is stunning ;)

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for the thumbs-up. It sounds like really a good read. Especially the distinction (division even?) between historical fiction and magical realism. I've grown fonder of the former, having read both Wolf Halla nd Bring Up the Bodies recently. And you bought the hardback copy of the book! Still my favourite format to read. :-)

Greetings from London.

Cid said...

Sounds lovely, I will definitely pick it up & wait for the snow to return. We have our second January thaw happening with record high temps & rain. Yuck!

Sarah Laurence said...

E Wix, I had a similar experience the first time I tried The Snow Child. Although the writing was lovely, the depressed woman contemplating suicide made me put the book back. Rest assured that the story becomes more upbeat after chapter one. There are still hardships and losses but they are balanced by happiness and gains, making a natural balance to the narrative. Still, it would not make a good plane book. The lyrical writing should be savored by the fire. I’m looking forward to a break from deep winter in NYC.

ND, thanks for your book recommendations. I’m familiar with The Help but not The Light Between Oceans. I shall check it out.

ACIL, I’m warming to historical fiction too, although my first love is contemporary realistic fiction.

Cid, we’re having similar icky weather here. The rain and fog are ruining yesterday’s fresh snow. Do share your thoughts on The Snow Child. I can see it being a big hit in Canada.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This review makes me long to read The Snow Child. Sounds like a book you can fall into.

Gloria Baker said...

Love this review..hope arrive here Sarah! Not all books arrive here; anyway I bought two books today only I want is begin to read lol
One is by Zadie Smith.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Sarah:
The Snow Child does sound to be the perfect accompaniment to winter days and evenings when one is closeted at home in the warm whilst the worst of winter's weather rages outside. Your recommendations have served us well in the past and so we have every confidence that we shall be delighted by this novel too.

Amanda Summer said...

i've heard of this book previously - the subject is magical and the writing seems profound and lyrical.

thanks for the reminder about scbwi events. i can't make the ny one but will look for upcoming ones in my neck of the woods.

stunning foto of the maine woods. i am curious as to what kind of research you were conducting in alaska?

Cat said...

Thanks for the review, Sarah. I'm glad the difficult first chapter was discussed in the comments so I know what to expect. It sounds like I'll have to wait a long time if I'm to read this by the fire. High in the 70's today. Come to Austin and enjoy the winter sunshine! Then, I'll come to Maine for the summer! LOL. It's on my list.

Donna said...

I just added this book to my to-read list. When you say that it's one of the best books you've ever read, I have to add it. It sounds really interesting!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, this painted such a huge grin on my face!!
So, so happy you liked it as much as I did.

Anonymous said...

I definitely want to read this book, child as I am of Lapland and Canada. Thanks for the review....

Alyson | New England Living said...

You had me at the first line in this post! I love any book that ought to be read in the winter, by a fire. Thanks for always introducing us to great reads!

Alyson | New England Living said...

Oh, forgot to mention your photograph, and how could I when it's so beautiful. Captures perfectly the peace and charm of winter.

Kelly H-Y said...

Love the book cover. Your photo is gorgeous too!

Barrie said...

Did you hear Meg Rosoff? I LOVE her books!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry to be slow to reply. I just got back from NYC. I’m looking forward to catching up with your blogs soon.

Tricia, I think you’d love the classic story telling and magical undertones in the Snow Child.

Gloria, I don’t see a Chilean or Spanish version yet on the author’s website, but it has been published in several countries outside the USA.

Jane, Lance, Donna and Alyson, I’d love to hear your reaction to The Snow Child.

Amanda, I actually met a bunch of Canadians at SCBWI. There were about a dozen from Toronto in NYC. They invited me to sit with them when they heard that I was on my own. SCBWI is a great way to learn about the industry if you’re a newcomer. Also a good place to find crit partners in your genre/location. In Alaska I was conducting research on energy policy for my master’s thesis in political science at MIT. I compared and contrasted the Trans Alaskan Oil Pipeline development to the lack of drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, focusing on the influence of interest groups.

Cat, I wish I could fly to see you in Texas on this cold, gray day. I hope you make it to Maine this year as I’d love to see you.

Pamela, thanks for the recommendation!

Charlotte, now that my review is done, I can loan the book to you. Remind me to bring it next time we have tea.

Kelly, the writing is as good as the cover.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, I did hear Meg Rosoff. She was hilarious. Her talk was on people (mostly her mom) not taking her seriously as an author because she writes for kids. I ran into her later and praised her for the talk, but she was talking to someone else so I didn't get to say more.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

How amazing! another example of synchronicity. I have just read The Snow Child (by my fire on a Welsh hill in winter). I wasn't entirely sure about it before I started but it was a recommendation from a friend whose judgement I trust so I persevered. I am not normally drawn to magical realism but I loved this. It felt very real and routed in the landscape and the characters were so strong it entirely won me over. I really am glad I found it and can see myself coming back to it again and again. Great review.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, great minds read alike? The Snow Child would have been perfect for your unusually snowy Welsh winter. Thanks for sharing your reading experience.