Snow ChildThe Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

It’s that time of year again — time for “All Rochester Reads the Same Book”. This year’s selection was a wonderful choice, a novel soaked in both frontier history and folklore, with a strong dose of poetry as relish. This one’s right in there on my short list of “All Rochester Reads” favorites. I know I’ll end up re-reading it, because my mind isn’t really finished with it yet.

On the historical side, it’s a novel about the Alaska wilderness in the early part of the 20th century. Mabel and Jack are a couple in their 40’s, recently come to Alaska from a Pennsylvania farm to take up a homestead. Their land is uncleared spruce forest, with only a handful of neighbors, and the nearest town a two-hour wagon ride away. The book very vividly creates a sense of the immense size, the wildness, the untamable forces of nature, from the spring mud to the summer mosquitoes to the winter darkness and cold. The vast silence out there impressed me from the beginning, as though the silence is a force to be reckoned with as much as anything more tangible.

The story has another side — drawn from those old European folk tales we love so well. There once was an old man and an old woman who had no children. So they built a child out of snow, and she came to life and became their daughter. In the end, though, they lost her again, though the story has varied endings. Sometimes she becomes mortal for love and dies, sometimes she returns to the snow because they failed to respect the magical rules. This old story comes creeping out of the Alaskan wilderness of forest and mountain on a dark winter night, carrying memories from other wild forests and mountains long ago and far away. In the world of the 20th century, a world of rationalism and modernity, fairy tales are stranger than ever, and harder to accept.

Mabel is eager to believe in the magical reality of Faina the snow girl, while Jack is almost offended by these whiffs of the mysterious. He must follow the child to her den, expose her reality. Yet strangely enough, once Jack has discovered the ordinary explanation of Faina’s story, once he has helped her to bury the frozen body of her drunken father, he is less able to dismiss her otherworldliness.  Instead of diminishing Faina to the size of an ordinary flesh-and-blood child in Jack’s eyes, the truth rather enlarges her in his awe and respect. Where Mabel sees a magical girl made out of wind and snowflakes, Jack sees a wild forest creature in human shape. He accepts Faina to come and go as she pleases, trusting that she can take care of herself as effectively as the red fox who is her companion.

Later in the story, when Mabel discovers Faina’s back-story, which Jack had never talked about until then, the revelation of Faina’s ordinary humanity shatters Mabel’s superstitions and fancies about the child’s origin. Mabel sees Faina as any ordinary child, a girl to be properly dressed and fed and sent to school. It’s at this point in the story that I first began to realize that Jack was actually seeing the marvellous in ways Mabel wasn’t. Jack couldn’t see sending this child to school, but not because he had ever believed her to be a “snow fairy”. He saw a magic of wildness in her, so that it seemed as strange to talk of sending her to school as it would be to send the red fox to school.

Yet, throughout this dreamlike story of a wild child come in from the snow, there is also simultaneously another story being told. Jack’s inability to work the homestead alone, especially after he injures his back, brings in the practical help of friendly neighbors. George and Esther have a houseful of sons, and the generous hearts so often met with in accounts of frontier community. Their youngest boy, Garrett, is feeling overwhelmed and overlooked in his mess of older brothers, so the chance to live at the neighbors’ place for a few months and lend a hand with the work is an escape for him. As the years pass, as Garrett becomes Jack’s right arm, imperceptible growth of understanding and affection gradually blossoms into something like family. He becomes like a son to Jack and Mabel, so that it seems only natural when they make him a partner in their homestead, to be their heir when they are gone. This story of how the childless couple found a son is like a parallel story to their relationship with their flitting wild daughter.

The stories of these two children weave together, mirroring and diverging. Like Faina, Garrett is at home in the woods, fishing and trapping. Like her, he is unhappy if he is trapped in chafing civilization for too long. But Garrett’s affection for family and friends makes him more tolerant of civilized ties. He is willing to tackle the burdens that come with farming a homestead, so long as he can get out onto his trap lines for a few weeks in the winter, or go on a weekend fishing trip into the mountains. Faina’s spirit is much more restless, much quicker to break for escape, more untamed. It seems inevitable that these two should fall in love, as though the fates in the old folk tale insisted on their place in a modern setting. Yet, even as the love story blossomed, there was a sense that it couldn’t work, that not even Garrett could hold a wild thing like Faina in his hands for very long.

Sadness and happiness are twined together throughout the book in such mutual necessity that they can’t be pulled apart. The book opens with a chapter describing Mabel’s walk across a frozen river, a description full of such exquisite attentiveness to the details of creation’s precious beauty that the reason for Mabel’s walk seems all the more unreal. She has a death-wish when she begins the walk, wondering with each step when the ice will give way, when she will slide beneath it like the leaf she sees in the swiftly-flowing stream beneath its glassy surface. Later, Jack’s exhaustion and despair eat away at his sense of worth, as he lies helpless with a busted back, crying to Mabel to leave him. Yet somehow, life and love keep bubbling up as the irrepressible green growth that follows winter. Jack and Mabel dance in the kitchen, Jack and Faina make snow angels in the yard, Mabel and Esther gossip with laughter and friendship, and the smell of baking pies fills the little cabin, along with the blood and feathers of dead chickens. As the years pass, as sorrows drown life, and as life rises again, a sort of resiliance reveals itself. Life and death, sorrow and joy, dance together as intimately as Jack and Mabel danced in the kitchen.

Mabel’s sister Ada, in a letter to Mabel, writes at one point about the old Snow Child folktale: “Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it 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?

A bit later, Mabel reflects on this question. “She would think of Faina running through the trees with the wild fox at her heels, and of Garrett with his steel traps and snares, and she would wonder if one can truly stop the inevitable. Was it as Ada suggested, that we can choose our own endings, joy over sorrow? Or does the cruel world just give and take, give and take, while we flounder through the wilderness?

By the end of the book, there is a sense that the answer is a bit of both. The give and take of joy and sorrow comes and goes all our days, and we have no choice there. But at the same time, there is a choice in the way we see the pattern. The given gifts of life are always there, along with their eventual taking-away. Looking always at what has been taken keeps us from seeing what is being given. At the end of the book, Faina is gone, and sadness is always part of that fact. But sadness need not be bitterness.  Little Jack is there, looking for his own adventure of life to begin. Jack and Mabel and Garrett and Little Jack keep on living, finding the little gifts of each day.

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