Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, The Snow Child, is the stuff of folktale: a childless and struggling couple in 1920s Alaska build a little snowman, only to later find in its place a one-way trail of departing footprints and a blond-haired girl disappearing through the woods in the snow creation's mittens and scarf. When a young girl later appears on the couple's doorstep -- apparently lost and alone in this inhospitable world -- the reader is drawn into an evocative confusion of reality and desire.
According to her website, the author -- a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska -- stumbled upon the story when reshelving Freya Littledale's children's book of the same title, itself a retelling of a Russian folktale of a snow child who comes and goes with the seasons as Ivey's snowchild does. What Ivey does with her own retelling is a bit of the same magic the best of fairytales carries into our hearts.
Maybel and Jack have come to Alaska fleeing the grief of a child stillborn years before: a boy child Jack has buried, leaving Maybel imagining the child to have been a girl. The fact that Maybel alone touches the live child within her while Jack alone buries its stillborn body -- and neither has spoken of the baby's gender -- is just one of the many examples of the isolation and darkness of their emotional landscape metaphorically rendered in the isolated and dark Alaskan landscape of the book. The two appear headed toward yet one more grief in their collapsing life: the impossibility of surviving the coming Alaskan winter. Then in a rare moment of carefree abandon, they build a child of snow.
Faina, the child who emerges as if by magic from their creation, hunts with a fox at her side, and leaves blizzards in her wake ... if she exists at all. The footprints she leaves behind are quickly covered by a snowfall only Maybel and Jack appear to have experienced. The child may be the lone survivor of a life spent isolated with her now dead father, but surely she is too young to negotiate this barren landscape alone when Maybel and Jack, even working together, cannot manage.
Ivey deftly negotiates this precarious ledge between the possible and the magical. Maybel, seeing the improbable child, feels "as if time slowed so that Maybel could no longer breathe or feel her own pulse," suggesting the possibility that her experience may or may not be real. "What she was seeing could not be, and yet it did not waver," Ivey writes. In acknowledging the impossibility, she allows readers who prefer realistic fiction a Faina who is a figment of Maybel and Jack's shared desire for a child they are unable to birth. In embracing it nonetheless, she allows those who prefer more magical worlds the possibility of a heroic Faina surviving in the wild. And she allows us all the pleasure of reading with curiosity right to the very end.
Whimsical and melancholy, believable and not, The Snow Child is, at its generous heart, an honest exploration of the weight of grief and the saving grace of love. Its true magic lies not in the question of whether Faina is real or imagined, but in the poetic detail of the world of Alaska in which we are immersed, and the understanding it brings to the too-often real grief of childlessness.