[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The Snow Child (2012) had me from the first page, specifically these two sentences:
She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart.
I loved the way Eowyn Ivey used alliteration and onomatopoeia here to reinforce the picture she described, and I was pretty sure from that moment that I would enjoy this book. And I did. I know I’ve found a good book when I find myself wanting to babble on about both the story and the mechanics of its telling.
The year is 1920. Mabel and Jack are a fiftyish couple who have moved to remote Alaska to get away from constant reminders of their childlessness and years-ago miscarriage. Mabel feels prissy and useless in this rugged land but isn’t quite sure how to change that. Jack feels that he “married up” and is ashamed that he can’t give Mabel a soft, easy life. Both are haunted by the lack of the children they wish they’d had. The Snow Child follows the evolution of these characters and of their marriage as they adjust to the harsh realities of their new home, befriend a rough-and-tumble neighbor family, and encounter the snow child of the title: a little girl who appears the morning after Jack and Mabel impulsively build a girl of snow.
The child, who calls herself Faina, is an enigma. Is she a supernatural being, a magical fairy-girl like the one from the “Snegurochka” tale Mabel’s father read to her long ago? Is she an ordinary flesh-and-blood orphan scratching out a solitary existence? Or is she a figment of Mabel’s imagination, conjured out of loneliness and cabin fever? Ivey feeds this ambiguity by writing dialogue differently when it involves Faina. These conversations are not set off in quotation marks the way the rest of the book’s conversations are. It helps one wonder whether Faina has the gift of speaking directly into people’s minds — or if she only exists in their minds in the first place. We do eventually get some answers about Faina’s nature, but later these seemingly definitive answers are called into question yet again.
The prose is skilled; one has the sense that every word in The Snow Child is carefully chosen, yet the book never seems overwritten. Ivey has a knack for using just the right word, not necessarily the prettiest word — they’re not always the same thing and she gets that. Ivey’s writing evokes both the stark setting and the moments of beauty to be found there, as well as the inner landscape of the characters. Here’s another sample that stood out to me, and seemed to perfectly describe the feeling of worrying about something and hoping that the worrying itself could somehow bring about a happy outcome:
It was a possibility she could not bear. She wound herself tightly, as if within her girdled ribs she could contain all possibilities, all futures and all deaths. Perhaps if she held herself just right. Maybe if she knew what would be or could be. Or if she wished with enough heart. If only she could believe.
The Snow Child is a moving fairy tale adaptation, and seems to tell us that no matter how we find our loved ones — whether by birth or marriage or friendship, or maybe by magic — we never know how long we will have with them. Life is uncertain; we might have more time than we expect, and we might have less. All we can do is make the best of it.