‘Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle’.
The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey, pg.63
It seems only appropriate to read a book entitled The Snow Child in the middle of winter. Set in the heart of Alaska, this novel draws on and is inspired by the ancient Russian fairytale Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden), and, from my research, Snegurochka is also depicted as the granddaughter and helper of Ded Moroz – Father Christmas! As Eowyn Ivey explains to us in a note after the novel, it was when she worked in a bookshop that she discovered this children’s picture book, which lit up her curiosity and imagination. Snegurochka would eventually lead her to Arthur Ransome’s ‘Little Daughter of the Snow’ (which is also at the back of the edition pictured above). It was this story that acted as the basis for Ivey’s The Snow Child, which is a beautiful and magical, yet heart-wrenching, account of a couple’s attempt to create a home in the seemingly hostile and extreme conditions of the Alaskan wildlife.
It is the 1920s and Mabel and Jack, a middle-aged couple, have moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska to start a new life in a remote homestead. It is their second winter and the hope of this new life has begun to wane for them. Mabel has realised that by escaping from the expectations and pressures of family life she has failed to escape from the devastation and serious psychological impact incurred by the loss of their one and only child during pregnancy, roughly ten years ago. At the beginning of the novel she is wading through a lake whilst harbouring suicidal thoughts, it is almost reminiscent of the opening of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which recreates and reimagines Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning in the River Ouse, near her Sussex home.
However, Ivey’s The Snow Child takes a different turn. Mabel returns to the cosy, little cottage she shares with her detached and distant husband. But on one winter’s night, in a fit of youthful hopefulness, Mabel and Jack decide to play out in the snow and build a small snow child. The next day there are mysterious footsteps leaving this pile of snow and Jack glimpses a young girl in the forest. Who is this young girl? How does she survive on her own in the harsh winter? Is she real or just a figment of their imagination?
I really enjoy reading modern twists on old fairytales – Angela Carter does it well in her collection of stories, The Bloody Chamber. Although I was unfamiliar with the story of Snegurochka and ‘Little Daughter of the Snow’ I found Eowyn Ivey’s heart-breaking story a completely original and beautiful take on a traditional tale. Ivey includes detailed depictions of a couple who have been broken by loss as well as exploring how to overcome this loss. I think the landscape also plays a very vital and distinctive part in The Snow Child. The inhospitable and hostile environment makes it impossible, in the end, to uphold traditional gender roles. Mabel is eventually allowed to help Jack prepare for winter and only when he is able to view her as an equal does their relationship take on a new dimension. They are finally able to talk to one another and express their feelings without fear of disregard.
Throughout the novel Mabel becomes aware of the different endings to Snegurochka by writing to her sister and each alternate ending proves to be unhappy. But as her sister writes back:
‘I think if I ever tell [this tale] to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?’
The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey, Pg.132
But for Mabel, she is not dealing with a fairytale; she is dealing with real life. From this point onwards I began to feel a sense of foreboding. It seemed inevitable that The Snow Child would also end badly and I found myself rooting for these characters. I was emotionally invested in the lives that Ivey had bought to life. The Snow Child proved to be a wonderful and mesmerising novel, perfect for snuggling up with in the winter months.
My edition also came with a list of Alaskan authors, recommended by the author herself. I am definitely intrigued to explore more Alaskan writing in the near future.