post by Cheryl Russell
“Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all…No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations…[a]ll those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence”(1). So begins The Snow Child, the debut novel (and one of three books in the final running for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction) from author Eowyn Ivey.
Mabel’s unresolved grief over the death of a premature baby that “looked more like a fairy changeling” (4) combined with the approach of her second Alaskan winter has driven her to despair. The use of the phrase ‘fairy changeling’ is an early hint to the novel’s fairytale aspects. Mabel used to believe “in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses,” (5) words which add to the fairytale aspects of the story. But the writing isn’t all fairytale. Ivey also anchors the reader in the novel’s setting.
Ivey also anchors the reader in the harsh, barren, yet beautiful setting of the Alaskan wilderness in the early part of the 20th century. As Mabel makes her way home after a failed suicide attempt at the river, she sees her surroundings as “a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all” (9). While there are still hints of fairytale—beauty—Ivey introduces a solid harshness to her novel by anchoring the reader into the setting. Ivey begins to anchor the reader into the setting when she describes Mabel’s reaction to the on-coming winter, Mabel’s second, which means this time around, Mabel knows what to expect; cold like death, glacial winds, and “[d]arkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked” (4).
Further into the novel, when the reader has experienced more subtle switches between fairy tale and setting, Mabel tries to tell her down-to-earth neighbor Esther about the little blonde girl Mabel saw earlier, and it doesn’t quite go as Mabel planned. Esther, who has lived in the wilderness far longer than Mabel, knows what isolation and long, dark winters can do to a person’s mental state. Esther also knows there are no little blond girls living in the valley, and in a kind way tells Mabel after long, dark winters people “get down in the dumps, everything is off-kilter and sometimes your mind starts playing tricks on you. You start seeing things…you’ve always wished for,” (78). But Mabel is firm, and explains away the absence of any tracks because of the “blizzard last week covered them all” (78). Esther starts to speak, “Blizzard? There hasn’t been any snow in—“(78), but then she stops.
Ivey maintains this tension between fairy tale and realistic setting throughout the novel—the fairytale never reaches the point of pulling the reader out of the story by being too fantastic, and the strong setting doesn’t overwhelm and destroy the fairy tale. Instead, they combine to form a story that is well-worth multiple reads.
Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Regan Arthur Books, 2012. Print