The Snow Child
Eowyn Ivey, 2012
Little, Brown & Co.
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow.
The next morning the snow child is gone—but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—February 07, 1973
• Education—B.A., Western Washington University
• Currently—lives in Alaska
Eowyn (A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Her mother named her after a character from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Eowyn works at the independent bookstore Fireside Books where she plays matchmaker between readers and books. The Snow Child is her debut novel. Her short fiction appears in the anthology Cold Flashes, University of Alaska Press 2010, and the North Pacific Rim literary journal Cirque.
Prior to her career as a bookseller and novelist, Eowyn worked for nearly a decade as an award-winning reporter at the Frontiersman newspaper. Her weekly articles about her outdoor adventures earned her the Best Non-Daily Columnist award from the Alaska Press Club. Her articles and photographs have been published in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Magazine, and other publications.
Eowyn earned her BA in journalism and creative writing through Western Washington University's honors program and studied creative nonfiction in University of Alaska Anchorage's graduate program. She is a contributor to the blog 49Writers and a founding member of Alaska's first statewide writing center.
The Snow Child is informed by Eowyn's life in Alaska. Her husband is a fishery biologist with the state of Alaska. While they both work outside of the home, they are also raising their daughters in the rural, largely subsistence lifestyle in which they were both raised.
As a family, they harvest salmon and wild berries, keep a vegetable garden, turkeys and chickens, and they hunt caribou, moose, and bear for meat. Because they don't have a well and live outside any public water system, they haul water each week for their holding tank and gather rainwater for their animals and garden. Their primary source of home heat is a woodstove, and they harvest and cut their own wood.
These activities are important to Eowyn's day-to-day life as well as the rhythm of her year. (From the author's website.)
The best thing about The Snow Child—what sets it apart from genre fiction and keeps you reading—is the way Ivey declines to lay her cards on the table. Are we dealing with fantasy or reality here?... She is a careful, matter-of-fact writer, who, thankfully, doesn't resort to unnecessary poetics or artificial ratcheting-up of tension. This leaves your imagination free to hare off down as many trails as you like.
Carrie O'Grady - Guardian (UK)
Here's a modern retelling of the Russian fairy tale about a girl, made from snow by a childless couple, who comes to life. Or perhaps not modern—the setting is 1920s Alaska—but that only proves the timelessness of the tale and of this lovely book. Unable to start a family, middle-aged Jack and Mabel have come to the wilderness to start over, leaving behind an easier life back east. Anxious that they won't outlast one wretched winter, they distract themselves by building a snow girl and wrap her in a scarf. The snow girl and the scarf are gone the next morning, but Jack spies a real child in the woods. Soon Jack and Mabel have developed a tentative relationship with the free-spirited Faina, as she finally admits to being called. Is she indeed a "snow fairy," a "wilderness pixie" magicked out of the cold? Or a wild child who knows better than anyone how to survive in the rugged north? Even as Faina embodies a natural order that cannot be tamed, the neighborly George and Esther show Jack and Mabel (and the rest of us) how important community is for survival. Verdict: A fluid, absorbing, beautifully executed debut novel; highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
A couple struggling to settle in the Alaskan wilderness is heartened by the arrival of the child of their dreams—or are they literally dreaming her? Jack and Mabel, the protagonists of Ivey's assured debut, are a couple in their early 50s who take advantage of cheap land to build a homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. But the work is backbreaking, the winters are brutally cold and their isolation only reminds them of their childlessness. There's a glimmer of sunshine, however, in the presence of a mysterious girl who lurks near their cabin. Though she's initially skittish, in time she becomes a fixture in the couple's lives. Ivey takes her time in clarifying whether or not the girl, Faina, is real or not, and there are good reasons to believe she's a figment of Jack and Mabel's imaginations: She's a conveniently helpful good-luck charm for them in their search for food, none of their neighbors seem to have seen the girl and she can't help but remind Mabel of fairy tales she heard in her youth about a snow child. The mystery of Faina's provenance, along with the way she brightens the couple's lives, gives the novel's early chapters a slightly magical-realist cast. Yet as Faina's identity grows clearer, the narrative also becomes a more earthbound portrait of the Alaskan wilderness and a study of the hard work involved in building a family. Ivey's style is spare and straightforward, in keeping with the novel's setting, and she offers enough granular detail about hunting and farming to avoid familiar pieties about the Last Frontier. The book's tone throughout has a lovely push and pull—Alaska's punishing landscape and rough-hewn residents pitted against Faina's charmed appearances—and the ending is both surprising and earned. A fine first novel that enlivens familiar themes of parenthood and battles against nature.
1. When Mabel first arrives in Alaska, it seems a bleak and lonely place to her. Does her sense of the land change over time? If so, how?
2. Why are Jack and Mabel emotionally estranged from each other in the beginning of the novel, and how are they able to overcome that?
3. How do Esther Benson and Mabel differ in temperament, and how does their friendship change Mabel?
4. The first time Garrett sees Faina in person is when he spies her killing a wild swan. What is the significance of this scene?
5. In what ways does Faina represent the Alaska wilderness?
6. Jack and Mabel?s only child is stillborn. How does this affect Mabel?s relationship with Faina?
7. When Jack is injured, Esther and Garret move to their farm to help them. How does this alter Jack and Mabel?s relationship?
8. Much of Jack and Mabel?s sorrow comes from not having a family of their own, and yet they leave their extended family behind to move to Alaska. By the end of the novel, has their sense of family changed? Who would they consider a part of their family?
9. Death comes in many forms in The Snow Child, including Mabel giving birth to a stillborn infant, Jack shooting a moose, Faina slaying a swan, the fox killing a wild bird, Jack and Mabel slaughtering their chickens, and Garrett shooting the fox. Why is this one of the themes of the book and what is the author trying to say about death?
10. What do you believe happened to Faina in the end? Who was she?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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