A modern retelling of an old fairy tale is also a compelling
account of frontier life. SHEILA KUMAR
The original version of this
charming tale, by Eowyn Ivey,
is titled Snegurochka and is in
Russian. It is about an old couple
who are visited by a fey creature
of snow, a little girl they begin to
love like a daughter. Like all folktales
of yore, it begins from a place of grief,
moves on to a place of sunlit joy,
then falls back into the permanent
abyss of despair. And, yes, there’s a moral.
Ivey sets her story in Alaska; her
old couple aren’t that old, merely
in their fifties but trapped in a
smothering cocoon of grief. Their
grief is so in the present that the
reader realises with a shock that
Jack and Mabel are locked in
mourning for a stillborn child.
It’s a shroud they have worn so
completely that it isn’t easy to
free themselves from its confines.
It is, in the author’s words, indeed
a world of darkness and light and
The opening paragraphs catch the
reader by the throat; Mabel is idly
but intensely considering putting
an end to her misery by drowning.
What’s more, she sets out to act on that ill-formed intent. If Mabel does not die, it is only
because the ice on the river refuses to crack open and let the dark waters pull her down,
rather than any second thoughts on her part.
However, personal salvation is around the corner: Faina, their snow child, a little girl
who suddenly turns up on their doorstep, who comes with the fragrance of fresh snow,
mountain herbs and birch bough, who flinches from fire and sun, who revels in the bitter
cold, the snow, the blizzard. Fairytale elements mesh seamlessly with the real world
(Alaska in the late 1920s), as Mabel and Jack begin to live again, to love each other
and Faina, and to become motivated to work the harsh land to their benefit.
The snow child is an adult fairy tale, of sorts. And it is the ‘of sorts’ part that Ivey
fills with very adult emotions: despair and sadness, debilitating injury, a slow-developing
love for the land, the summoning up of the sheer grit to live in these parts.
Setting a calibrated pace, Ivey fleshes out characters as well as situations — a set of
warm-hearted neighbours, Garrett (a boy whom Jack and Mabel warm to), otters in
the river, silver foxes glimpsed on the ridge, foods of delight as well as sustenance
— even as she maps out Mabel’s gradual return to life and all that it contains.
The author’s descriptive powers are clearly at the heart of the novel. The taming of
the otherworldly child, Jack’s killing of a giant moose, Faina’s disturbing encounter
(shades of Leda and the Swan here) with a swan; Garrett’s trips across the country
are masterfully crafted passages.
If the modern re-telling of an old fairytale fails to grip you, read The Snow Child
for its compelling and lyrical account of frontier life. There are descriptions of a
riverbed where white-blue ice had buckled and frozen into great swells and dips;
glacier-fed valleys cradled between white mountains; silent strands of willow and
spruce; the splotches of colour in a bleak landscape made by the cranberry,
raspberry, and strawberry shrubs; glimpses of fox, coyote, lynx and wolf…Alaska
emerges, for this writer at least, the true protagonist of the book.