The re-telling of a popular fairy tale is fairly common in modern literature. Some of my personal favorites are the many re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and others by Robin McKinley (beautiful, lyrical, and sophisticated) and Gail Carson Levine’s wonderful re-imagining of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted. However, elements of fairy tales are found in many stories, and fairy and folk tales are the basis of much of modern humanity’s oral traditions. Eowyn Ivey’s dreamy contribution to the genre can’t exactly be called a re-telling as the fairy tale in question is read as a fairy tale in the novel itself. However, The Snow Child makes wonderful use of the famous Russian story of Snegurochka, the little snow girl, as a framing device for the larger events of the novel.
The story of the snow girl, like most fairy tales, is found in many forms. In some cases, the little girl is the daughter of Spring the Beauty and Father Frost who falls in love with a mortal shepherd but melts when her heart warms with love. In other cases, she is the granddaughter of Ded Moroz, the Russian Father Christmas. In still others, she is the daughter created from snow by an old, childless couple and evaporates when jumping over a small fire with friends. This last version is that which is closest to the story utilized by Ivey in her novel. All versions, however, fall under ATU type 703, The Snow Maiden, filed under Fairy Tales: Other Stories of the Supernatural.
Ivey beautifully weaves the tale of The Snow Maiden through her story of Jack and Mabel, a childless couple who moved to the wilds of Alaska from the cosmopolitanism of the East Coast in the 1920’s for a fresh start. Mabel struggles against isolation and depression, while Jack shoulders the burden of the farm and finances, seeking to protect Mabel from them. They become friends with George and Ester Benson, a couple long established in the Alaskan wilderness, but their life is turned upside down after they build a snow child and a young girl named Faina comes into their lives. The pain of unintended childlessness, marriage, the idea of family, love, and perseverance are all explored in loving and thoughtful depth as Jack and Mabel’s lives change with the seasons and the presence or absence of the little girl.
Whether Faina is a real girl or the snow child come to life, like the child in Mabel’s favorite childhood book, is never established, though it is thoroughly debated, and this is part of the magic of the book. It is not the fairy tale, nor does it try to be. Instead, it examines the role of fairy tales in real life and the possibility of the impossible made real. The Russian story serves as a frame on which to hang the everyday pains and joys and fears of Jack and Mabel’s life in the Alaskan forest, and Ivey masterfully weaves the tale and her new story together.
Ivey’s style is both spare and vividly dramatic, creating detailed images with an economy of language. It’s perfect for the harsh landscape in which the novel is set, emphasizing the difficulty, desperation, and isolation of living in the arctic frontier. Additionally, each character is beautifully crafted and fully realized, which is imperative when much of the book functions within their inner thoughts. Paralleling the stark landscape, the dialogue is often minimal and spare, even when Jack and Mabel grow closer in their relationship. Their inability to communicate and Jack’s tendency to place all blame on himself creates a gulf between them, constantly changing in size but always as quiet as the snow. Faina is ultimately what serves to close the gulf, but that does not happen until the end of the book. In the meantime, the chapters tells the story alternatingly from Jack and Mabel’s perspectives. The shifts are fluid but distinct, and the reader comes to feel intently for these characters. Presenting the story from the perspective of these two characters’ inner thoughts and turmoil highlights the deep love they have for each other as well as the painful loss of their lives that sometimes pushes them apart. Later, another character’s perspective is introduced, but it is done in such a sophisticated and subtle manner that the transition maintains the quiet, snowy tone of the book perfectly. Ivey masterfully melds elements of setting, character, and style to create a tightly woven and ultimately moving story.
This is a quick and easy read, but that it not to mistake it for fluff. It is thoroughly enjoyable while tackling universal issues in a thoughtful and highly creative way. I highly recommend it. A new addition to the fairy tale and fairy tale adjacent genre is always welcome in my book, even more so when it is good literature.