The Perfect Winter Read: The Snow Child / by Chakriya Phal

the snow child-1000-2.jpg
In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.

It snowed yesterday and my neighborhood was covered in a thick blanket of white. During our family walk I thought of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and the Alaskan landscape so vividly painted in this mesmerizing story about love, survival and hope. It was one of the last books I read in 2017 and it is easily my favorite book from that year.

Set in the 1920s Frontier Alaska, the story follows homesteaders, Mabel and Jack, as they set out to establish a new life. After two years of isolation, the couple is "fading away without the other's notice." Mabel is finding life in the wilderness less romantic than she imagined. The grief she ran away from, the very motivation that fueled her leaving Pennsylvania, has followed her. She is often left alone with her thoughts while her husband works the field and go trapping. Their marriage is tinged with sadness as they lose themselves in their individual despair. Jack comes home, they eat dinner silently, and he retreats to bed thereafter. 

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scored you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all

But in a rare moment of playfulness, the couple makes a snow child accessorizing it with a scarf and mittens- even carving out a face. In the morning, the snow child has melted, the clothing gone, and there are footprints leading away from where it was built. Jack spots a little girl with her pet fox and we are eventually told her name is Faina. She appears as quickly and unexpectedly as she disappears. Is the child real or fantasy? We are never sure as the story does a delicate dance between fairy tale and realism.

What hooked me aren't the moments Jack and Mabel has with Fiana, but the in-betweens when they are waiting for her to come to them again. Unlike most books I've read, Mabel and Jack are not newlyweds or young, they are both nearing fifty and childless, a stigma that's even more so in the 1920s. Jack and Mabel's relationship is complex, riddled with a lack of communication yet also full of devotion. As much as they silently push away from each other, they also need one another- for love, for companionship, for survival. I adore the relationship between the pair and how Ivey spends equal attention with these two characters. 

The landscape also plays a central part in this story. So skilled was Ivey in describing the cold forest, the frozen lakes, and snowcap mountains that I found myself shivering involuntarily at one point. Before me I saw the modest log cabin, Jack chopping wood, Mabel baking a pie, and a little chill dashing between the trees with a fox trailing closely. The Snow Child is a breathtaking story that I will be reading again and again.