Guest written by Emily Chess
For January, I was tasked with selecting a “Cold Book” for the month, and with lots of snow and extra chilly temperatures hitting West Virginia in January, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey seemed like a perfect pick. Published in 2012, this 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist transported us from our cozy homes to a homestead in the frigid and beautiful state of Alaska during the winter.
The book, loosely based on the Russian fairytale “The Snow Maiden,” takes place in the 1920’s and follows Jack and Mabel, an older couple who have always longed for a child. After tragically burying their newborn baby, Jack and Mabel decided it was time for a change of scenery, and made the move from Pennsylvania to Alaska to start a new life on a homestead. Unfortunately, homesteading in Alaska is no easy feat, and the couple struggled with earning a living and traversing the new terrain, especially as the winter months hit.
The couple befriends their neighbors, George, Esther, and their teenage son Garrett, who help them get to know the land a bit better (the book club was speculating just how close these neighbors lived, as both couples have tons of land). One night, the two decide to have some fun build a snow girl after a particularly heavy snow. When they woke up the next morning, all that remained was a pile of snow and some footprints. Not long after, they start to notice a little girl running through the woods and appearing on their land, wearing the same red mittens and scarf they dressed their snow girl in. After some time, they meet the girl, called Faina, and begin to care for her as their own child. When the bring her inside, Faina gets too warm and always makes her way back outside, telling them that the outdoors is her home. Mabel recalls the Russian fairytale of a similar concept from her childhood, and has her sister ship her the book. Mabel convinces Jack that they made Faina real out of the snow due to their longing for a child. Jack doesn’t believe Mabel, but as spring approaches, Faina leaves, returning only during the winter after the first snow hits, convincing Mabel that Faina really is a magical snow child. What Mabel doesn’t know is that Jack had found out that Faina’s father passed away after following her into the woods one day and seeing her former home. Faina says she prefers to live off the land, as it is all she knows, and refuses to be under Jack and Mabel’s care in their cabin. Faina brings Jack and Mabel gifts and visits with them frequently, but always makes her way back into the harsh wilderness.
After years of appearing and disappearing as the seasons change, Faina gets older and is discovered by Garrett, and a romance begins between the two now older teenagers. Faina gets pregnant, the couple marries, and then they move into a new cabin on the homestead to start their life together. After Faina gives birth, she struggles health-wise and asks to be out in the snow on a particularly cold night, as snow is the only thing that seems to help her. Mabel sits with her in the frigid temperatures during the night, and when she wakes the next morning, Faina is gone.
During our discussion, the group decided that this book had an interesting story, but left a lot of questions unanswered and was often confusing to follow. For example, when Faina was speaking, her dialogue did not include any quotation marks as normal dialogue would. A few members had to read through these sections multiple times to understand what was dialogue and what wasn’t. This led us to wonder if Faina was really speaking to them, which then led us to discuss if Faina was really a real person at all. Was she some sort of winter sprite who was able to change her age? Did she melt every spring and come back only with the snow, or did she really head north during the warmer months of the year? How did she disappear at the end? Where did she go? These were just a few of the questions brought up during our discussion of the book. We described parts of it like the ending of the movie Inception because it seemed like it was up to the audience/reader to decide how everything played out. This was frustrating for some of us, but others enjoyed some of the uncertainty, giving the book more of that fairytale vibe.
A couple members did mention that it was difficult to read about Jack and Mabel losing their child and how Mabel truly believed that they made Faina out of the snow because of how desperately they longed for a child of their own. Faina refusing their care and living out in the wild stung a little more, further showing that Faina was never truly Mabel and Jack’s child to care for.
In terms of the plot, we found the first half of the book to be a little more dull and slow, while the back half was more interesting, but moved a little too quickly. For example, Jack and Mabel getting to know Faina took a great deal of time in the first half of the book, but when Faina and Garrett got together, we breezed through looking at their romantic relationship, marriage, pregnancy, and parenthood in 100 pages or so.
One thing we enjoyed about the book was the author’s excellent ability to describe harsh Alaska winters, and what life was like living on a remote homestead. Given that the author is an Alaska native, she was certainly able to describe how harsh, remote, and beautiful Alaska is.
We collectively gave this book 3/5 stars. We enjoyed the fairytale vibes, Eowyn Ivey’s writing (and for my fellow Lord of the Rings fans, her name), and the general concept of the book. However, we found it confusing to follow, particularly where Faina’s dialogue was concerned, and we felt that it moved rather slowly in the beginning. At the end of the day, it certainly fit the “Cold Book” theme, especially with how cold and snowy January was.
Guest written by Emily Chess