Friday, May 3, 2013

Book: The Snow Child

(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a wonderful adaptation of a Russion fairy tale by the same name.  Taking place on the Alaskan frontier in the 1920's, the book recounts the tale of a childless couple, Jack and Mable, struggling to revitalize their relationship.  After the night of the season's first snowfall, when Jack and Mable make a snow girl with all of their longing for a child of their own, they begin to see a young girl running wild through the woods with just a small red fox as her companion.  This almost supernatural girl, Faina, who is more at home in the winter wilderness than inside a cabin, changes the lives of Jack and Mable, as well as their neighbors' the Bensons, with her unique vitality and refusal to join what little society can be found on the Alaskan frontier.

One aspect of this book that makes it particularly successful is the fact that it is set firmly in the genre of "magic realism."  According to, magic realism is defined as "a style of painting and literature in which fantastic or imaginary and often unsettling images or events are depicted in a sharply detailed, realistic manner."  Unlike most fairy tale adaptations that, largely by necessity, place the story firmly in a world of magic and fantasy, The Snow Child maintains a realistic tone that keeps the reader constantly guessing what is real.  Since I read this book as part of a book club, it was very interesting to hear the realists be disappointed in how unrealistic certain aspects were, while those who enjoy fantasy literature were disappointed in how realistic the whole story ended up being.  The genre itself adds an unsettling aspect to what would otherwise be a rather straightforward story about the harsh realities of life on the Alaskan frontier.

The story is also successful in its expansion of the fairy tale in order to more fully address real-life problems.  While the basic fairy tale in largely about love and loss, with the snow child being a blessing to an older, childless couple before she inevitably dies in a somewhat tragic manner, the book is able to enrich the story with more details and thus discuss other problems that cannot be examined in a short tale.  For me, The Snow Child is also about what it means to be a woman.  So much of the story revolves around Mable and her efforts to find her place as a wife, a woman on the Alaskan frontier, and as a mother to the mysterious Faina, who is unlike any other young girl.  Mable first has to find her identity as a childless woman both in society and within her marriage, which changes drastically when she and Jack move to the Alaskan frontier to escape the social pressures of their families.  In Alaska, Mable struggles to define herself as one half of an equal partnership with her husband on their farm, especially in comparison to their neighbors, the Bensons, and the vivacious Esther Benson, who becomes Mable's best friend.  Once Faina appears, Mable must take on the challenging role of mother to a child who largely refuses to be coddled and taken care of, as most children would want to be.  Faina herself defies most definitions of femininity by living by herself in harsh climates, hunting and trapping better than some of the male characters.

Overall, The Snow Child is a successful adaptation of a fairy tale into a novel; it makes excellent use of the fairy tale premise to explore deeper issues of life such as marriage and what it means to be a woman.  The fact that is based on a fairy tale slightly outside of the more common Western traditions (such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen), makes it even more interesting.

Magic realism. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: May 3, 2013)

Ivey, Eowyn. (2012). The Snow Child. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 

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