Jack and Mabel move to Alaska to try to separate themselves from a tragedy — the loss of their only baby — that has frozen the core of their relationship. They intend to establish a homestead in the wilderness, but it is 1920 and they are middle-aged, friendless and from ‘back east’ — unprepared and ill-equipped for the backbreaking work and unspeakable loneliness of pioneer life. By the middle of their second winter the climate, isolation and sorrow of their situation seem to have got the better of them; at the opening of The Snow Child we find them at the end of their wits and their resources.
During a singular moment’s lightheartedness after a snowfall the desperate couple builds a snow child beside their house and dresses it in hat and scarf. The next morning it has been trampled away and they spy a little girl wearing the snow child’s clothes and flitting about the woods. She might have sprung from the air; to have neither home nor family, and to be untraceable. She seems more sprite than human and in some puckish way to command the wild animals and the weather.
At first Jack and Mabel glimpse her only in brief spells and snatches but her continuing presence starts a thaw between them. Their luck changes; they are galvanised and hopeful. Mabel, however, has remembered how this fairytale ends and dreads the end of winter, fearing that the snow’s melt will bring a new loss and another sorrow.
The best of this book is not in the story which is ancient and familiar but in its uncharted setting: 1920s Alaska. Although The Snow Child is a debut Eowyn Ivey has written about her own life in the Alaskan woods and is confident when she treads home ground: scampering about in the wild with her pen she is sure-footed; the mechanics of survival in this frozen wilderness are described with a keen, clear eye and a competent voice.
But it is the magic and not the realism that will sell a million copies of this book. The Snow Child — ‘a bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope’ — calls to mind another debut, The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose readership this book aims (rightly and deservedly) to captivate. Both occupy the realm of kitchen sink fairytale in which a reader is required to suspend not disbelief but unbelief: the possibility of time-travel need not be believed but should at least be countenanced; the ‘snow child’ is given a real history and an earthbound presence but only a pig-headed, clod-hopping reader would insist on binding her to it. To dismiss the fantastical is to reject the charms of the novel and for what? One might as well stab Tinkerbell in the heart.