It’s no secret that I’m an avid reader of folktales. At home, my shelves are full of new and old versions of Brothers Grimm and countless anthologies of Irish and English tales. So when I heard about “The Snow Child,” I knew that this was a book I had to read. What makes Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child” charming is its ability to retain the old world feel of a classic fairy story while also connecting her characters and setting to a modern reality.
Everything about “The Snow Child” is exciting and magical, particularly because it is set in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1920’s. Ivey captures the landscape perfectly with her precise yet delicate prose and despite the bleak setting, the world that she draws readers into is magical. Magic is everywhere in this story: in the first snowfall, in the animals who visit Jack and Mabel and in the people that they meet. Although the basis for this story is built around a Russian fairytale, Ivey does an excellent job of leading the reader into the magic of the story gradually. For most of the book I found myself wondering whether Faina, the snow child, was truly magical or whether Jack and Mabel were in fact going crazy. The subtlety in which Ivey introduces us to Faina and her strange existence creates a sort of mystery that beguiles the reader and keeps them wanting to know the truth.
While I am not usually drawn to tragic stories—and this one has an element of tragedy that is apparent from the beginning—Ivey drew me in regardless with her knack for creating whimsy. When we first meet Jack and Mabel, their farm is failing, they are starving and it seems as though there is no hope for them in the wilderness. As we grow to learn more about Faina alongside Jack and Mabel, it becomes clear that the true magic lies in the connections that are made between the friends and families that are created as a result of Faina’s appearance. In particular, the characters in this piece are well rounded and interesting to read about. Jack and Mabel’s neighbors are quirky and realistic, which goes a long way to lighten the occasional somber patch of plot.
Apart from creating a unique approach to a modern fairytale, Ivey has a unique stylistic approach to signal to the reader that something magical is afoot: each time that Faina appears in a scene she loses the quotation marks, which gives the narrative a dream-like quality. Perhaps this was meant to create a contrast between the magic that Faina brings when she appears and the reality that exists when she is gone. In any case, I think it is an inventive way to signal a shift in tone for readers to keep the flow of the narrative well paced. As I have mentioned before, even though early in the story readers are aware that something tragic is going to happen, Ivey does a good job of creating suspense. We are left wondering when will it happen? How? Thanks to a few well-placed discussions between characters, we begin to wonder if the event will happen at all.
Sometimes, re-writes are criticized for borrowing too heavily from their sources and not adding enough “flair” to the story that they are trying to re-tell. Over the years, I have read many stories that seem more like an unfortunate bout of deja-vu, but “The Snow Child” is not one of them. Where other re-tellings may leave something to be desired, Eowyn Ivey cultivates mystery and tragedy and in the process achieves a new kind of fairytale that is as unique as a snowflake, with prose that sparkles.
Published by Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books
Publishing Date: Nov 6, 2012
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 416 (Paperback)