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The Snow Child – Book Review

Was that why they had come north – to build a life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply sift away in the wind. – from The Snow Child, page 32 –

It is 1920 along the Wolverine River in Alaska. Jack and Mabel have left their comfortable life in Pennsylvania and traveled north to make a new home in the wilderness. They hope to leave behind their longstanding grief of losing a child and find solace alone. But as the days grow shorter and the snow begins to fall, both are left with a feeling of despair and loss. Then, in a lighthearted moment, they play together in the snow and construct a snow child, wrapping a scarf around her neck and carefully filling in the details of her face. When morning arrives, they discover only a pile of snow where the snow child once stood, and tiny footprints leading off into the woods. Have they created a real child from their sadness and longing? And if so, where is she and will she survive?

Eowyn Ivey’s novel The Snow Child is a story of recovery from grief, about re-finding love between a husband and wife after a devastating loss, and about the fragile nature of life against the backdrop of an unforgiving landscape. Set in the 1920s, the novel recreates the Alaskan wilderness and the struggles of settlers well. Ivey has a good grasp of what it is like to live in the wilderness where survival is sometimes dependent on one’s neighbors and the ability to keep going in the face of immense challenges. I found both Jack and Mabel, as well as their neighbor Esther, to be sympathetic characters who were well drawn.

The first half of the story is, perhaps the strongest. It is here where Ivey’s writing shines as she shows the desperation and sadness of Mabel and her estrangement with her husband, Jack, while they struggle with their grief in the solitude of the wilderness.

What fun Christmas would be with a household full of little ones, they told each other their first quiet winter together. There was an air of solemnity as they opened each other’s presents, but they  believed someday their Christmas mornings would reel with running children and squeals of delight. She sewed a small stocking for their firstborn and he sketched plans for a rocking horse he would build. Maybe the first would be a girl, or would it be a boy? How could they have known they would still be childless, just an old man and an old woman alone in the wilderness? – from The Snow Child, page 44 –

The Snow Child was inspired by a Russian fairy tale, and I enjoyed the magical aspects when Jack and Mabel first begin to suspect that the little girl running through the woods with a fox by her side is actually someone they have conjured up from their imagination and desire for a child.

A faint memory emerged again and again – her father, a leather-bound fairy-tale book, a snow child alive in its pages. She couldn’t clearly recall the story or more than a few illustrations, and she began to worry over it, letting her thoughts touch it again and again. If there was such a book, could there be such a child? If an old man and woman conjured a little girl out of the snow and wilderness, what would she be to them? A daughter? A ghost? – from The Snow Child, page 86 –

Despite the strengths of the novel and my early enjoyment of it, I did not end up loving this book which spans many years in the lives of the characters. Survival in the Alaskan wilderness depends on the ability to hunt one’s food – it can be brutal and difficult. Some of the hunting scenes felt a bit gratuitous to me and, as an animal lover, I found myself cringing. The book also lost its focus in the latter half of the story, veering away from some of the magical elements (which I found so appealing) and shifting to more realism. At times I felt like Ivey was not clear about the direction in which she wanted the story to travel. Because of this, the ending fell flat for me.

I believe The Snow Child will appeal to those readers who enjoy some magical realism and literary fiction. It is a bit of a modern day fairy tale and would have been more successful for me had it remained firmly in the fairy tale genre. The strengths of the book include wonderful descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and the early character development.

  • Quality of Writing:
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  • Plot:

Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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12 Comments

  1. April 21, 2012    

    I enjoy some magical realism in novels and the setting and climate is certainly intriguing. Too bad you found the plot wanting! I have this book on my TBR list!

  2. April 21, 2012    

    I, too, felt the book begin to lost its lustre halfway through. I almost abandoned it, but I had to know how it ended (even though I felt certain she would leave). I found myself thinking a lot about it, though, after completing it. It’s an interesting novel of what makes people who they are; some are born, I think, with a tendency to flight. I can only pity those who are left behind as that is where my sympathies lie.

  3. April 21, 2012    

    When I read the description I thought this book sounded like it held a lot of promise. It’s too bad it loses steam halfway through.

  4. April 21, 2012    

    I have this book on my TBR. I really keep meaning to pick it up and see what I think of.

  5. April 21, 2012    

    I loved this story and I do agree with you about the first half being the strongest…but I liked it a bit more than you did. Great review!

  6. April 21, 2012    

    This book has reached the over-hyped stage that usually scares me off. And since I am definitely not a fan of magical realism, I think I’ll give it a pass. Great review, Wendy.

  7. April 21, 2012    

    Oh I am really looking forward to this and hope I enjoy it as much as I think I will.

  8. April 22, 2012    

    It’s disappointing when a book starts off so strong, and then loses its way.

  9. April 22, 2012    

    This is one of my favourite books of the year so it is interesting to read your perspective. I normally struggle with magical realism, but I loved the way this book balanced on that thin line between magical realism and the real world.

  10. April 23, 2012    

    I’ve been hearing a lot of praise for this one so it’s nice to see some balanced thoughts. Too bad that it didn’t end as strongly as it began–it’s always alittle easier to forgive a slow/weak start with a stronger finish. I’m not in a hurry to read this one but I will be keeping my eye open. I love elements of magical realism if done well.

  11. April 23, 2012    

    Oooh, see, the hunting part is going to be a struggle for me, for sure. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Nel Mercer Nel Mercer
      October 19, 2012    

      Great review. I agree with everything you said, except that the hunting scenes didn’t bother me, maybe because I grew up on a ranch.

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