Most readers, knowingly or unknowingly, bring something of themselves to each book they read. If they’re lucky, the book they have read will give something back. For those of you who choose to read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, whether or not you are childless, love the snow, seek solitude from the hustle-bustle of life, or believe in miracles, as long as you simply love a good story well-told, you will be abundantly rewarded for your effort.
Mabel and Jack have left family, friends and farm in Pennsylvania to build a new life in the cold and uncompromising wilderness of 1920 Alaska. What Mabel seeks is silence from “those sounds of her failure and regret. . .” What possible “failure and regret” could drive a woman, city bred and educated, away from everything familiar to start all over; and a husband, who knew only a life on his family farm, to willingly follow? It was the sound of others’ children that drove them away. It was the sounds their stillborn child had never made in the ten years since its death, and the loud and echoing pronouncement of their last chance at parenthood.
Jack and Mabel settle near the Wolverine River, homesteading on acreage they have chosen for its remoteness, its near isolation from neighbors and town. Their sole connection to the world they have abandoned is the train, newly tracked through that part of Alaska. The life they have chosen not only isolates them from neighbors, but its harshness and demands begin to separate husband from wife as each harbors an unshared grief. Ivey’s one sentence description of who Mabel is tells the reader of Mabel’s depth and sensitivity: “All her life she had believed in something more, at the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses.”
But nothing prepares Jack or Mabel for what happens to them after building a snow child in front of their cabin. A young girl’s face is lovingly carved by Jack, and Mabel wonders if it isn’t “…a glimpse at his longing.” Mabel puts mittens on the snow girl’s birch branch arms, and around her neck she wraps a delicately knitted scarf that had been a gift to her from her sister. The making of the beautiful snow child creates a rare togetherness for the couple that continues even after returning to the cabin.
Much later that night, Jack goes out to the woodpile for logs to reheat the cabin. There is fresh snow, a bright moon and a sudden movement between the trees in the distance. Jack turns to the snow child, but she has been knocked apart and the mittens and scarf are gone. The rest of the novel is pure magic. The child materializes, disappears and appears again. Is she real or the result of cabin fever as suggested by Ethel, one of Mabel’s few neighbors?
Eowyn Ivey has written one of the most moving stories this reviewer has ever read and already reread. It is a novel as beautiful, as real, and as haunting as the Alaskan wilderness itself.