There is something quite appealing about a fairy tale or myth turned into a novel. One of my favorites is a retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a young adult book called East, by Edith Pattou. There are plenty of examples in this vein, but that book came to mind first, which is in itself a rather good recommendation.
In The Snow Child, author Eowyn Ivey has not done a literal retelling of the folk tale, but rather used it as inspiration for her own story. The original tale is referred to in the book, with one of the characters drawing parallels between it and her own life, which is an interesting and fresh take on the re-telling technique.
The two main characters of this novel are a middle-aged couple past their childbearing years, a sad pair who have always wanted a house full of children who never arrived. The narrative gently shifts between the perspectives of these two, Jack and Mabel, made similar by the thread of melancholy woven through both. They each describe their lives in Alaska, how they came to be there, and what things were like before they arrived. Theirs is a difficult existence, as they attempt to eke out a living in an unforgiving wilderness, one which they had hoped would unite them in shared effort and reward. Instead, they are as isolated from each other in spirit as they both are from civilization.
In a rare moment of playful togetherness, Jack and Mabel build a snowman in their yard, which is so small that they come to think of it as a child. They give it features and accessories that establish it as a little girl. This act of shared creation is clearly symbolic and meaningful, and it serves to lessen the tension between them, bringing some warmth to the chill of their marriage.
Things then take a turn for the strange and mysterious. The child of snow is destroyed in the night, and the warm clothing it had worn has disappeared. What follows tests the credulity of the reader and the characters. A real girl appears in the woods outside Jack and Mabel’s cabin, wearing the clothes with which Mabel dressed the snow child. The stranger’s hair and face bear startling resemblance to those Jack gave their creation the night before.
For days, then weeks, then longer, this child becomes an ever-increasing part of the couple’s lives. They struggle with questions they cannot know, perhaps do not want to know the answers to: Is she real? Where did she come from? Did they somehow conjure her into being?
The surprising thing about The Snow Child is how the author manages to take a fantasy and turn it into something the reader can believe. Things become more plausible than one would expect, and yet there is a prevailing sense of magical fragility to the whole story. The reader might think she has it all figured out, and later come back to a place of uncertainty.
While the mystery is well-managed, that tinge of sadness never truly fades away. Each new revelation in the story changed my expectations and my hopes for the outcome, but I never felt that I really got what I wanted out of the book. Perhaps this was intentional. I was left with a small taste of the longing that had been a constant theme in Jack and Mabel’s lives, and which touched other characters in a different way.
Ms. Ivey keeps the reader guessing, and emotionally involved as well. She has crafted the story with skill, and it is well worth a read. I only suggest that after finishing it, you read or do something happy, something to ease the wistfulness that The Snow Child will leave behind.