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Friday, September 7, 2012

What I'm Reading: The Snow Child

Many moons ago I read the debut novel by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child.  The novel is based on a traditional Russian folk tale in which a childless couple make a snow child and it comes to life, but eventually it melts when the warm weather comes.  Click here for a recent picture book adaptation of the tale.

In Ivey's version, the couple, Jack and Mabel, are homesteaders in 1920s Alaska, not a very forgiving landscape.  They are barley making it.  She is lonely and he is physically unable to keep up with the intense labor of the farming.  During the season's first snowfall in the nadir of their time in Alaska, the couple has a fun moment building a snow child.  The next morning, the snow child is gone but they glimpse a blonde, wild girl running into the woods.  So begins their relationship with this mysterious child, Faina.

Now Jack and Mabel are well educated and understand that what they are seeing could only come out out of a fairy tale, but over time, Farina becomes a part of their life, and their family.  While Mabel accepts Faina without question, Jack sets out to prove where she really came from.  She gives them purpose, but in a story based on a fairy tale, the ending can only be bittersweet at best.

This is a novel for people who like retold fairy tales. Even though we know how the story will eventually end up, there are still surprises, enchanting moments, wonderful characters, and a just a feeling for being utterly transfixed by the story.  You get lost in this book, and don't want to leave the characters.

The setting here is so vivid it becomes a character.  It is stark and unforgiving.  It is cold and wet.  We can feel the wind as Ivey describes it.  But it is also beautiful and mysterious.  When spring comes we breathe a sigh of relief with the homesteaders.  I was transfixed by the descriptions.  I also enjoyed the historical aspects too.  There is much detail here about how one would actually have to live on a homestead in 1920s Alaska, how you would (or wouldn't) be able to communicate with your family back East, and why one would make the choice to live literally in the middle of nowhere.

The characters are also an important part of whether or not you will like this story.  Because the plot is not action oriented-- the seasons come and go with regularity and life does not vary much-- it is the characters you must read for.  Mabel and Jack are well fleshed out, as we get alternating chapters from their different point s of view.  Their only friends and neighbors are great secondary characters and add a bit of humor to the story.  And their youngest son becomes a pivotal character in the tale.

Since the story takes place over a 2 decade period, we see the characters grow and change.  We see how the harsh landscape grows on them.  And we come to love them all like family.

The language is lyrical and slightly old fashioned but it works for the setting and frame of the retold fairy tale. This is a great book to curl up with and read in one of 2 sittings.  The ending is resolved but a bit open.  Overall this is a dreamlike read with a bittersweet ending.

Three Words That Describe This Book: retold fairy tales, strong sense of place, dreamlike

Readalikes: The first book I thought of when reading The Snow Child was Keith Donohue's The Stolen ChildClick here for my review of that novel.

Really anything by Donohue, Kevin Brockmeier, or Steven Millhauser would work here.  In fact, take a look at this post where I summarize the appeal of all three of these authors.  But for those of you who don't want to open a new window, I would say these men share with Ivey a style in which they tell a story and you, the reader, sit back and experience it.  Their work is  lyrical, dreamlike, and character driven with details frames anchoring it all.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern also has a similar fairy tale quality, where the setting and characters reign supreme.  Again, it is a book that will transfix you.  Click here to read my detailed review.  (You can also see me interview live next month for free by clicking here).

Other books I read that would work as readalikes (use links for details):
One of my favorite backlist titles is The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall.  Here is what I have to say about it on the Browsers Corner:
Edgar is a half-apache, half white child whose life the reader enters when his head is crushed under the wheel of the mailman’s truck.  After a miracle recovery, Edgar is abandoned by his family and begins a remarkable journey. This is an uplifting and inspiring story of a truly unique and lovable protagonist. Fans of John Irving will love this novel
Finally, here is the link to the GoodReads page on Fairy Tales that includes links and lists for traditional fairy tales and retellings.


Katy M said...

Sorry to be a bit pedantic, but the girl's name is Faina, not Farina. :-)

Becky said...

Thanks. Stupid auto correct.