Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

 Inspired by a Russian folk tale about an elderly couple who make a child out of snow and she comes to life, this is a story set in the snowy wastes of early-settled Alaska.  If you like snowy stories, this one has plenty, and beautifully described, too.  What it also has is the kind of story that lots of us would have liked to have written ourselves, perhaps.   Oh! and a touch of magic realism (but if that is not your bag, please don't be put off).

Jack and Mabel are a childless couple in their early 50s, who, taking advantage of US Government payments offered to people who are willing to go homesteading in Alaska, find themselves in an alien landscape.  They lost their only child at birth, many years previously, and that loss has made them a sad couple, wanting to forget and being unable to do so.  On night, in a moment of uncharacteristic fun, they build a snowman, and before finishing, make the body part into a female by carving it into a skirt, and Jack makes the head like a real girl by caring the snow into a face.  Mabel adds hair, a scarf and some mittens on the twig arms, and they are done.  In the morning, the snowgirl is gone, broken and crushed - and so are the scarf and mittens.  So is it magic when a child appears in the trees, wearing those items?  Is it magic that the child disappears and reappears, apparently with no parents, no home, and in sub-zero temperatures?  Is it magic that gradually the child comes into their home for short visits in the winter, but is gone every single summer?  Well, it is certainly magic to them, the way she has come into their lives and into their hearts.

This is not only about Jack, Mabel and a snow child.  They have neighbours, George and Esther, who have several sons, one of which is a so much of a help to Jack when he is hurt that he becomes like a son to them helping out, sleeping in the barn, growing up.  Esther, a down to earth woman, full of fun and the joy of living, becomes the one who draws Jack and Mabel out of their sadness, and makes visits so worthwhile.  But she really doesn't believe in the snow child.  Thanksgivings are fun, ploughing is fun, even washing the dishes is fun now that George and Esther are in their lives.  And every winter, the snow child visits.......

Eowyn Ivey lives in Alaska and is able to describe so well those long wintery days when there is hardly any light, and those long summer nights when there is hardly any darkness.  The ever constant snow, whether down on the homestead in winter, or up on the mountain tops in summer;  the plants and flowers, birds and animals of that huge wilderness are all part of this lovely book, which will make you read on, getting toward the end with a sense of foreboding, but willing yourself on.  Worth every page turned.