As much as writers preach about conflict and drama and excitement in every book, sometimes, the opposite is true. Books that build atmosphere and mood are just as evocative as the most thrilling books of all time—the books that put you in a contemplative meditative state. While it took me a long time to get through The Snow Child—because life does not include unlimited reading time—I can finally remark upon this gentle beast of a story.
In 1920 Alaska, Jack and Mabel are two mainlanders who have come to build a homestead in their gathering age. With their means of income dwindling, and Mabel still in despair over delivering a stillborn child, things look bleak for the two of them. On the night of the first snow, Jack and Mabel build a snow child, and the following morning, a child who looks eerily like their snowy creation appears in the nearby woods. Over many years, they watch the child grow up, but they can never figure out whether she is a real little girl, or something of a more magical ilk…
I referred to this book as a “gentle beast”: the overall mood and pace of the story is meditative and easy to read, but what happens inside is still brutal and sad. Author Eowyn Ivey evokes the Alaskan wilderness with harsh reality but also with tender affection; she hails from Alaska, so she knows what she’s talking about. As Jack and Mabel see for themselves, an Alaskan winter is nothing to sneeze at, but there is still a wondrous beauty here they could never find in the mainland. And much of that unabashed beauty comes in the form of Faina, the little girl who may or may not have been borne from their snow sculpture.
Although Ivey holds up a mirror to life on an Alaskan homestead, there is mystery and magic sprinkled throughout. Mabel often references a Russian fairy tale that almost mirrors their life with Faina: that the snow child found family in an old man and woman, and came and went with the seasons, as she does. Luckily though, the mystery of Faina never hinders her character: she may be wise, but she still throws a tantrum; she may be brave, but she still grieves for what she’s lost. It is very easy to connect with all these characters, but Jack and Mabel especially.
The emotion and mood of this book is powerful, so I have mentioned, but the most potent emotional moment comes early. When Jack and Mabel create the snow child, they’re burdened with worries about money and food and even their marriage. But in this moment, when the snow is falling, and they’ve indulged in the fantasy of what their child would look like, they are freed enough from their worries to remember why they love each other. The combination of great levity from their anxiety, plus the picture of two older people having such a long-coming connection, feels so wonderful, and this quiet determination that they share lasts through to the end!
The biggest treat with this book is that you never really know where it’s going. Which is fine, because it also doesn’t have a big-bang climax or even a straight-up villain. And again, the characters are all so likable and the atmosphere so real that bells and whistles like that aren’t needed to keep you interested. It’s just a story about two people who love and feel so deeply for each other, and for a small mysterious child from the woods. And, like a wise man once said, sometimes, all you need is love.