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Review of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

When I requested this book to read, I had no idea the immense impact it would have on me so many thanks to Tinder Press for a paperback copy of this book. First published in 2012 I am so pleased it has been re-published this year.

 

This is a wonderful grown-up fairy tale carefully woven together with the original story.   

 

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Why this book speaks to me personally: Each year I was given a book token at Sunday School and this one year at the book shop I chose Old Peters Russian Fairy Tales for 7/6d.  Four years ago I sold my house and my library of much loved books, keeping just a handful when I moved onto a narrowboat. Today on my little bookshelf tucked away at the stern of my boat-home, is the little blue leatherette covered book.  Some of the pages have old yellowed sellotape on the missing corners where Patch our dog somehow got hold of it and chewed it. But amongst the chewed pages the stories were my escape from a tough childhood, hiding away in the bedroom I shared with my sister or down the end of the garden amongst the raspberry patch reading the stories over and over.  The illustrations in black and white took me to far off lands of snow where I felt alive.  So, reading The Snow Child to me is like revisiting my childhood excitement in stories.

 

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Eowyn Ivey brought me two of my most favourite passions: Alaska and fairy tales.

 

What I loved about this book? I love how the words are from someone who lives in and loves Alaska; the remoteness and harshness, but the true beauty of the wilderness, where summers are brief and the winter darkness prevails. Just listen to this:

“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the brook bristles scratched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart.”

and

‘Outside, the air was clean and cool agains her face, and she could smell the wood smoke from the chimney. She let the snow float around her, and then Mabel did what she had as child – ruined her face to the sky and stuck out her tongue. The swirl was dizzying and she began to spin slowly in place. The snowflakes landed on her cheeks and eyelids , wet her skin. The she stopped and watched the snow settle on the arms of her coat. For a moment she studied the pattern of a single starry flake before it melted into the wool. Here, and then gone.’

I can’t imagine any person who hasn’t done that when they were a child, a simply beautiful description!

 

The struggle of a couple each silently grieving for their stillborn child, to live and survive in the wild. I wanted them to make it work.   Mabel so desperate to get out in the fields with Jack her husband, to get physical release from her grief.   Jack wanting to protect her from the harshness and pain of working outside tasking her to keep house and prepare his meals.   During the turn of the century pioneers had no modern appliances or generators to make living easy, just a horse and a plough if they were lucky, oil lamps for light, and a cast iron stove to cook on and keep warm. There is a real sense of history in the way the lives of the couple are portrayed in their struggle to survive the wilderness, and for Jack and Mabel had most of all the unbearable emptiness of being childless.

Until one day they build a snow child.

 

The love that Jack and Mabel share after thirty years is one of solidness but have never before have they known such love they have for the girl as she runs about amongst the trees and when Mabel remembers her father reading to her the story of the Little Daughter of the Snow from a blue leather bound book she can’t quite believe that this child is of snow.

 

Don’t make the mistake in thinking that this is not an adult book or a soft option to read, this is a great novel written beautifully, it made me cry, and it made me smile, I felt despair when Jack is injured, and grateful that their wonderful neighbours came to help out. The snow child Faina has her own part in the story, and it’s one that I didn’t expect.

 

You get a real sense of Mabel and Jack as people here:

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 hand s as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers.’

and

Jack wasn’t one to believe in fray-tale maidens made of snow. Yet Faina was extraordinary. Vast mountain ranges and unending wilderness, sky and ice. You couldn’t hold her close or know her mind. Perhaps it was so with all children. Certainly he and Mabel hadn’t formed into the molds their parents set for them.’

Their neighbours, the Bensons, bring much warmth and comfort to the book, full of strong boys, and a happy capable woman bottling fruits and shooting bears. What follows is descriptive warmth that conveys a family home full of chaos, love and hope.

‘It was if Mabel had fallen though a hole into another world. It was nothing like her quiet, well-ordered world of darkness and light and sadness. This was an untidy place, but welcoming and full of laughter. ‘

I have visited those homes wishing I could stay a while longer…

 

There is an immense aching sorrow in the ending, but like all good stories there is also hope.
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I am planning a once in a lifetime trip to Alaska with my daughter within the next couple of years before I decline cognitively with dementia (having Alzheimer’s disease) and reading The Snow Child felt very special to me, as if it’s drawing me closer there. This book will be placed along side my 1955 copy of Arthur Ransome’s Old Peters Russian Fairy Tales with illustrations by Dmitri Mitrokhin for keeps.