The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian folk tale of an elderly couple who, unable to have children, used snow to form a girl who then comes to life. This novel takes place in 1920s Alaska instead of Russia, and the “elderly” couple, Mabel and Jack, are about fifty years old. Ten years have passed since Mabel gave birth to a still-born child in Pennsylvania, and her grief, and the loneliness she feels at family gatherings full of children, caused her to persuade Jack to try homesteading in Alaska.
The book starts during their second winter on the banks of the Wolverine River (apparently a fictional river). Mabel is so desperately depressed and lonely that she risks death by walking across the river on ice that she knows is too thin. Miraculously, she survives. Shortly after, during the first snowfall, she and Jack playfully build a girl of snow, even giving her mittens and a scarf. The next morning the snow girl has been destroyed, but small footsteps lead away from it. Mabel and Jack begin to see a blonde-haired girl near their home who seems to be wearing the mittens and scarf that they put on the snow girl.
The girl, Faina, seems to have mysterious powers: she can create storms, and she manages to help Mabel and Jack survive the winter, despite their precarious finances. She seems to have unlimited endurance and a preference for cold weather. On the other hand, she is very human in many ways. It is unclear to Jack and Mabel who, exactly, Faina is. She can speak, but whenever characters have a conversation with her, no quote marks are used, so I wasn’t sure if they were actually speaking out loud, or communicating silently.
I’ve never been to Alaska, but Ivey’s descriptions of the Alaska wilderness brought the setting alive in all its icy splendor. I was captivated not only by the fascinating mystery of Faina, but also by the well-drawn characters of Mabel, Jack, and a family with whom they become close friends. The Snow Child was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. A musical based on the book premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in the spring of 2018. The graphic above is from the web site of Georgia Stitt, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music.