If you grew up in a country where it snows, you probably have at least one memory of making a snowman.
Mine never turned out looking like they did in storybooks; the snow wasn’t always quite right, the shapes were never properly rounded, and the requisite carrot and coal and branches were never nearby when you needed them.
Mabel and Jack certainly didn’t move to Alaska so they could play in the snow. They travel to Wolverine River in 1920 to begin a new life together.
It’s just the two of them. No children. There was one, “born still and silent”, who had looked “more like a fairy changeling” than a child. Perhaps they thought that the frontier would be big enough to hold their grief.
From the beginning, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child begins like the Russian fairy tale (“Snegutochka”):
“There once was an old man and woman who loved each other very much and were content with their lot in life except for one great sadness – they had no children of their own.”
The statements are true-but-aren’t-quite-true of Jack and Mabel. They aren’t very old. They once loved each other very much, but they have fallen out of the habit. They are content when they are not hungry and cold. They have no living children.
But in the gap — between the fictional man and woman of the fairy tale, and Jack and Mabel in Eowyn Ivey’s novel — resides the stuff that makes this story.
Life on the frontier is not easy, but Jack and Mabel find a certain kind of peace there, and they begin to make a place for themselves as a couple, begin to rediscover their own relationship, which had been overshadowed by the grief they hold for the child that they lost.
It’s a figurative re-building, but they are literally re-building their life together on the frontier and, one night, they literally make a child, out of snow, in the wintry night.
They shape her together, with their own hands; they dress her and they stumble indoors and into bed together.
And the next morning? The snow child is gone, though a trail of tiny footprints leads away from the spot that they made her.
In that gap, too, between the figurative and the literal, resides the substance of The Snow Child.
Of the two, perhaps it’s easier to believe that Mabel could have imagined the snow child into existence. She had heard the tale, at her father’s knee, from the time that she was a girl; she had parts of it memorized.
The young Mabel persisted in believing in “the little folk” long after other children had begun to scoff at such nonsense. She’s always been the creative sort. And when readers meet the older Mabel, she is nearly out-of-her-mind with grief.
But Jack? ”Jack wasn’t one to believe in fairy-tale maidens made of snow. ”
And, for all that the snow child is ethereal and appears only in glimpses and snatches, she does begin to take root, in her own way. For Mabel, and for Jack, and for the reader.
“Yet [the snow child] was extraordinary. Vast mountain ranges and unending wilderness, sky and ice. You couldn’t hold her too close or know her own mind. Perhaps it was so with all children. Certainly he and Mabel hadn’t formed into the molds their parents had set for them.”
There again, that gap, between imagination and reality, the extra-ordinariness of the snow child, and the sense of her being as it was “with all children”.
The characters are archetypal and, yet, the emotional resonance surrounding the characters suggests a more contemporary means of developing character.
They are more intricately drawn than one would expect from a fairy tale, but the simple language, the and-then-what-happened tale-telling, and the overarching theme of love and loss lends the story that kind of familiar feel.
And of course those kinds of stories — the old tales, not the Disney-fied versions — don’t always end happily.
When Mabel asks her sister to send her the copy of “The Snow Maiden” that she remembers her father reading to them when they were girls, she encloses a letter:
“What a tragic tale! 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?”
Clearly Ada believes that’s allowed, but is it allowed in Eowyn Ivey’s book? Or is there a gap between what the fictional characters believe in and what their author, Eowyn Ivey, believes, too?
I’d say it was heartwarming, but that would be just wrong. I’d say it was chilling, but that’s true-but-not-quite-true.
It’s the kind of story that makes you think when you’re done, that it was really a memory. Made with exactly the right kind of snow, the edges properly rounded, and all the appropriate accessories.
Do you know this fairy tale? (Its origins mean that this read counts towards Carl’s un-challenge, Once Upon a Time.) Have you read this novel? Are you planning to? Do you have snowman-making memories?