Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska, was educated there, and lives there. Ivey was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for this, her first novel. Particularly because this is a debut novel, I read it very critically, but it is excellent. It takes some skill to spin a compelling tale of marriage and survival in Alaska in the 1920s out of a Russian folk tale of The Snow Maiden, “Snegurochka”, in which the sweet Snow Maiden is born out of snow and comes to bring joy to a childless couple, until she eventually melts and disappears.
The Snow Child is set in the 1920s and follows Jack and Mabel, a childless older couple struggling as homesteaders in the Alaskan wilderness. (The period during which it has been set makes this Modern Fiction, but it comes across strongly as Fantasy.) The sudden emergence of a young girl from the woods changes their lives. Ivey’s novel – which is just such so moving – was adapted into a musical play with the same name which premiered at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 13, 2018.
Unfortunately, in the play the themes of the novel of love, survival, the longing for a child, and the almost supernatural, dark force of the Alaskan wilderness, have been subsumed by themes of female emancipation, women’s thankless work and other politically correct sentiments that led to “…the show’s almost perverse determination to soften any sense of conflict”, according to The Washington Post. That’s a pity because it is the contrasts between the sweetness of the child and the times that she reverts to something almost animalistic – like the fox that accompanies her – that make the novel suspenseful.
Allusions to the traditional folk tale
This story is also different from the folk tale with the same name, The Snow Child, in which a merchant returns home after an absence of two years to find his wife with a newborn son, whom she says came from a snow flake. The merchant raises the boy until he sells him into slavery, telling his wife that the boy melted. Readers who recognize these allusions in the title and cover illustration will also immediately have a sense of impending doom in the story. Whether it is like the snow maiden or the snow child, it cannot end well.
Pastoral Alaskan scenes
However, the novel is filled with really beautiful descriptions of the Alaskan landscape, and the other lead character – the snow. The characters are beguiling, the end – while expected – is nonetheless enough to make you swallow a sob, and though you know has a bit of Magic Realism in it, it is still an enchanting read.
About the author
Ivey published her next novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, in 2016. Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Her mother named her after a character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. She tweets here and her blog, Letters from Alaska, is a real treat – so pretty! Prior to her career as a bookseller (at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska) and novelist, she worked for nearly a decade as an award-winning reporter at the Frontiersman newspaper. Her weekly articles about her outdoor adventures earned her the Best Non-Daily Columnist award from the Alaska Press Club.