Once upon a time there lived a childless old couple...
This is not an uncommon beginning to folk tales, a simple introductory line which can (and in Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child does) condense into a few simple words the years of pain, sadness, and intense longing for something that nature refused to give despite desperate desire.
"Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?"
This is where I saw the strengths of The Snow Child - not in the imagery of Alaskan wilderness through the prism of magical realism, not in the enigmatic nature of the titular snow child, but in the depiction of quiet, desperate sadness and alienation that plagues a deeply unhappy couple, torn apart by the weight of grief, struggling under the burden of their perceived failures.
"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."
Jack and Mabel are an aging couple who left their old life and moved to Alaska seemingly to start a homestead but really to escape the weight of their loss that, turns out, they were not able to leave behind with their old lives. More than anything, Mabel desired to have a child, defining herself through the view of motherhood - but all she and Jack have is the memory of a tiny deformed stillborn, the one that Mabel hasn't even had a chance to say goodbye to as Jack (with the best intentions, sadly) quickly took it away for a silent nighttime burial.
Years later, neither Mabel nor Jack have overcome their grief and loneliness. Instead of reaching out to each other, instead of finding ways to cope they seem to have retreated deep into each own self, allowing tiny cracks to appear in their marriage, withdrawing behind invisible doors, isolating themselves from the world filled with life and children and constant reminders of their loss and (at least in their perception) failure. In this state of mind, leaving everything behind and trying to start a brand-new life in Alaska seemed like a promise of a new better life - or so Mabel had hoped.
"Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence."
But little has changed in the new place - the sadness that rules their lives, enveloped in silence and things-not-quite-said refused to be left behind. And here they are, in Alaska, still grieving, still drifting apart, Mabel suicidal in her depression, Jack preoccupied with simply trying to provide sustenance to his family, and things have never looked bleaker for the two of them.
"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."
These parts of quiet desperation in which Jack and Mabel existed - because at this point it was mere existence and not quite life - were the parts that emotionally connected with me. There is that elusive *something* in the pervasive melancholy superimposed onto the landscape beautiful but cold and severe that touches the soul and pulls on the heartstrings, and even though you know that it's calculated to precisely do just that to your poor vulnerable heartstrings you cannot help but feeling for this miserable couple deeply and sincerely.
My heart ached for Mabel even though I cannot quite relate to her plight. But, unlike her, I can imagine a world where not having children can be a choice instead of a curse, where being a mother is not the sole expectation for a woman, where it is okay to admit to the lack of allure of maternity. For me, such a world is part of our reality. For Mabel, on the other hand, not having children has been out of question - and her not having them was merely unnatural in the America of the 1920s.
"If you said you didn’t have children, it sounded like a choice, and what kind of craziness would that be? If you said you couldn’t, the conversation turned awkward while they contemplated your manliness or your wife’s health."
And then, just as everything seems to be hopeless, the Snow Child appears - a strange and ethereal Faina, a little girl who appears on the night Jack and Mabel in a giddy trance make a snow sculpture in their yard, a child who only is seen in winter and seems one with the snow-covered stern world of Alaska. To Mabel, something about her reminds of a Russian children's story about a snow maiden that graced the lives of an old childless couple; and as far as Mabel remembers, the story does not have a happy ending.
Mabel's Snow Maiden is very familiar to any Russian child. Snegurochka, a tragic young maiden made of snow, doomed to demise by the fire/spring/love in the many versions of the fairytale (beautifully depicted by the famous painter Vasnetsov below), who through the last couple of centuries came to fill the role of the granddaughter of Father Frost, the ubiquitous presence at any kindergarten New Year's Day party, the inspiration for the many children's New Year's outfits (see baby Nataliya below as a very special snowflake/Snegurochka):
Faina, unfortunately, is the weak link in the melancholic fragile magic that is the sadness of this book. Is she real or fantastical? A snow child or an abandoned little girl? seems to be the question that plagues her adoptive parents; her vulnerable fragility masked by the exterior of strength and stubbornness is touching, indeed. But it's precisely this mysteriousness, further underscored by the quotation-mark-less dialogue every time Faina makes her appearance was what for me prevented the formation of any meaningful connection with her. Faina's appearances, right down to the 'what just happened here?' last one I found instead frustrating, jarring and interrupting the tone of the book.
Mabel's friend Esther, basically the embodiment of life energy that Mabel appears to lack, a breath of vitality in the slow melancholic existence. Unfortunately, this stark contrast again breaks the mood of this book that hinges on quiet sadness.
Overall, I found this book to be a lovely story, even if far from perfect. It's captivating in its own quiet way when it focuses on its strength - the fragile yet tender relationship between two aging lonely people in the cold and cruel but beautiful world. 3.5 stars and a respectful nod to Eowyn Ivey for a rather strong debut work.
"But he knelt at her feet, put his head in her lap, and they held each other and shared the sorrow of an old man and an old woman who have lost their only child."