Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “The Snow Child”

I’m ashamed to admit it, but it took me seven months to finish Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. This is no reflection on the book’s quality or read-ability; this season of life has just been a ridiculously busy one.

Given the length of time over which my read of The Snow Child was stretched, I would’ve expected the book’s impact to be somewhat lessened. After all, how emotionally engaged can one be, reading a book one 5-minute fragment at a time?

Quite a bit, it turns out. At least that’s what the mountain of balled-up tissues around me as I finished the novel said.

The Snow Child has a lot going for it (as a Pulitzer Prize nominee, this is hardly shocking). Its evocative atmosphere is among its most immediately striking attributes. Set in Alaska, the novel knits around the reader a chill shroud, both beautiful and fierce. That I could read this book while sunning beside a swimming pool in South America and still feel myself swept up on a moose hunt through an ice-glazed forest is quite a testament. Gone was the slick heat and calls of exotic birds; in their place was icy silence, encroaching chill, and glistening snow. The Alaskan wilderness–with its tension between beauty and danger–becomes its own character in Ivey’s novel. More than mere frame, the forbidding Alaskan hinterlands infuse the characters and heart of the novel with their pristine delicacy, their untamed spirit.

The book also dances a delicate waltz along the line of magical realism. Having written on García Márquez’s work, I’m pretty familiar with his Latin American magical realism. It is bold, spectacular, intoxicating. Set against this, Ivey’s take on the style is delicate, effervescent, whimsical. Paired with her precise language and the poignancy of her story, the effect is like a long twilight: lovely and a little haunting.

Her storyline and character arcs are also beautifully executed. Upon finishing the novel, a glance back at the tale’s beginning shows the deftness of the transformation. Slowly, entirely believably, Ivey moves her main characters–middle-aged Jack and Mabel–from a marriage of estrangement and quietly lived despair to one graced by love, life, grief, and a determination to hew from Alaska’s wild a home. This kind of transition isn’t easily accomplished without being heavy-handed, especially given that the novel is not particularly long at 386 pages. But Ivey excels, somehow handing the reader hope despite the bleakness of the tale’s opening and its bittersweet close.

Another point that sets the novel apart: its breadth of appeal. A retelling of the tale of the snow maiden, The Snow Child follows a childless couple as they discover a little girl mysteriously surviving in the Alaskan wilderness and begin to love her as the longed for daughter they could never conceive. By any cursory survey, this novel shares no touchstone with my life. I’m South Texas gal, born and bred, and want as little as possible to do with snow. I am married, but–praise God–my marriage has yet to know the type of isolation and tragedy experienced by Jack and Mabel. I neither have children, nor am I desperately trying for one.

Yet Ivey’s resonant portrayal of human longing, grief, and love is profound enough to overleap these dissimilarities. Jack’s and Mabel’s experiences become familiar, intimate, and utterly felt. No novel can capture every single reader’s heart; there are certainly some who would find no connection with The Snow Child or its characters. But for the right reader, Ivey’s ability to translate the human heart into story is powerfully enchanting, and makes this book well worth reading… even when it takes seven months to do so.

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