The Snow Child, By Eowyn Ivey
Fantasies from the wild frontier
Sunday 04 March 2012
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."
Arts & Ents blogs
Cheryl Cole to return as an X Factor judge in £1.5m deal
What are the best first lines in fiction?
Russell Crowe's Noah banned in three Arab countries before worldwide premiere
Sharknado 2: Former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle to fight second wave of flying sharks
Call The Midwife: Jessica Raine leaves in series three finale
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Vince Cable: Teachers 'know absolutely nothing' about the world of work
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
- 1 Australian man Rod Sommerville reacts to bite from deadly snake by reaching for cold beer
- 2 Pakistan vs Paul Smith: Sandal-wearers bemused by famed British designer's attempts to sell traditional Peshawari chappal-style shoes for the distinctly untraditional sum of £300
- 3 North Korea elections: Kim Jong-un wins 100% of the vote
- 4 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 5 Sharknado 2: Former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle to fight second wave of flying sharks