Monday, February 23, 2015

"The Snow Child": She comes from the land of ice and snow

I read seasonably.

In the summers, I enjoy romantic stories without heavy handed writing, books that I can get through quickly, but that still have substance.  In the winter, I enjoy the sad, hearty historical fiction books, books that are a challenge and can take me weeks to finish.  Because we took a break from our Chicagoland harsh winter and went south to Florida to feel some sunshine, I was torn on what to read.  Do I go with my more summery books, or should I stay with a heavy winter book? I opted to take one of each and see how much reading I could accomplish in the week I was away.  My wintery book, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey, made me feel warmer than the book I chose as my summer read (Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

Although I was reading about Jack and Mabel, a couple who moves from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s to begin a homestead after suffering the birth of a stillborn child, I felt warm due to the "Little House on the Prairie"-esque vibe of their lives.  It's quiet and a bit lonely inside of a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness.  They need to live off of moose meat - all winter long (talk about getting tired of leftovers) - in order to survive.  Mabel continues to suffer under the crushing weight of the Alaskan winter with it's darkness and hostile environment that leads her to thoughts of loneliness and lack.  For Jack to succeed in potato farming, he needs to do countless hours of back breaking physical labor that is both hard and dangerous on his aging body.  But the warmth of their love in their small, tidy cabin in the woods gives comfort and hope.  This book paid reverence to the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, but made no mistake about the dangers of this wintry world where ice can swallow people whole, and humans cannot survive without a struggle against loneliness, darkness and isolation.

As the story unfolds, the couple who have longed their whole lives together for a child but are now too old to have one, uncharacteristically become playful during a snowstorm.  They build a snow child, and Jack even carves a beautiful face for it.  Mabel puts a hat and gloves on it, and in the morning when they wake up, the snow child sculpture they created is gone.  Mabel soon witnesses a little girl who cautiously approaches their home (almost like a wild animal seeking shelter) wearing the hat and gloves that she placed on the snow creation.  Is this the child that they have always longed to have? Or are they imagining this girl because they are suffering from loneliness and they've always wished to have a child with them?

In Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, she shows amazing prowess as a magical realism writer.  She creates quiet ambiguity with her storyline, and she crafts characters who are believable and likable.  The characters and the readers know about the fairy tale that tells the story of an old couple who want a child and fashion one out of ice and snow.  The fairy tale never ends happily, though.  The child melts or leaves forever in the spring.  Mabel truly believes that she and Jack have created a child, just like in the fairy tale she remembers from her childhood.  The girl that comes into their world, who goes by the name of Faina and travels with a loyal red fox, seems magical enough - with her hair in tangles of the Alaskan wilderness and the smell of the herbs and nature. She leaves blizzards in her wake, holds single snowflakes in her palm, and most of all she can survive the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Alaskan winter unscathed.  Ivey divulges nothing and even leads the reader to question Faina's existence by never using quotation marks when she talks to anyone.  Is she real? Is she imagined? Is she magical? It's hard to know even by the end what's real and what's imagined not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel as well.  Mabel swears that Faina is magical and even warns against getting her too warm out of fear that she will melt just like in the fairytale.  "You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers." Jack, however, knows something about Faina's past that he promises never to tell anyone even if it's the right thing to do.

What is clear, though, is the magical charm of this simple story of a couple who longed to be parents and find themselves in the role asking themselves the same questions parents everywhere ask.  What decisions do you leave to your child? How do you allow your child freedom without losing them forever? How do you hold onto someone who only wants to be free? When do you push and when do you let go? What is done out of protective love and what is done out of the fear of loss? What role does fate play in our lives and do we have the power to change our fate or are we powerless in the face of it? Do you believe in miracles?

Many questions come up throughout this novel, but the mysterious world of Faina will keep the reader interested, regardless of the season that he or she chooses to read this book.  "The Snow Child" is an impressive debut novel that will allow you to love the winter a bit more and see the beauty in the snow and ice and harsh extremes.  It will show you how strong every individual is even when they believe they are weak, and it will make you question the notion of "good parenting" without lectures or research.  It's just good, magical storytelling in any season.

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