The Snow Child transposes a Russian folk tale, about an old childless couple who make a daughter out of snow, to Alaska in the 1920s. Jack and Mabel, cultivated types from "back East", are scratching a living from the frozen dirt, he too proud to ask for help, she too standoffish to make friends. In their deep loneliness they have only each other.
One night they giddily make an effigy out of snow, staining the lips with berries, adorning it with mittens and scarf. The next morning the figure has been trampled and they see a tiny, bemittened figure dashing through the trees. Gradually, over the months that follow, they tempt the little creature closer and closer to their home.
Mabel has loved the folk tale since childhood, and is longing to believe they have summoned up a daughter. Jack, having followed the child into the woods, has a clearer view of how she came to be there and knows they can never own her. Throughout, Eowyn Ivey keeps a delicate balance between realism and fantasy.
The details of pioneer life are beautifully evoked, as is the beauty of Alaska's skies, trees and icy lakes. The animals that roam these pages include the wolf, pine marten, grizzly and brown bear, mink, beaver, sea otter, silver fox, ermine and moose. There are also dispassionate accounts of the trapping and killing necessary to wrest survival from this pitiless place. "Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man's struggle."
Jack adapts fastest to life in the wilderness, to Mabel's astonishment: "Suddenly she was married to a northern hunter, a woodsman who gutted moose and toasted moonshine in a barn." Eventually the pair find friends in their new surroundings, and the novel is rich in human companionship, in food, fun, laughter and the sheer kindness and goodness necessary to thrive in a dangerous environment. The novel is occasionally a little po-faced in its portrayal of strong folk and simple values, but mostly Ivey's tone is perfect.
There are variant endings to the Russian folk tale, but all are sad. A kind of joyous pessimism pervades the novel. "I guess maybe I don't want to be warm and safe. I want to live," says the young trapper who forms the last piece in the puzzle.
But nothing can be grasped forever, especially not a loved one made of snow. "Everything will change," one character comforts another. "But you'll do the best you can."