The Snow Child, delicate as a snowflake, is as achingly beautiful. Even before one can fully appreciate it, the flake melts into water, and that small, insignificant moment is where all the beauty lies. Starting with numbing despair and hopelessness, Eowyn Ivey, the author, slowly moves towards a delicate happiness, so delicate that it disappears as the characters try to touch it.
Woven on the framework of a popular European myth, told and retold in many ways over the generations, the story still manages to hold the reader. It’s a tale of a middle-aged couple, trying to start afresh in the unforgiving landscape of Alaska. At the centre of their deep bonding lies the shared pain of losing their only child. While Jack punishes his body through hard physical labour to move past the emotional pain, Mabel seems to be getting buried in the light layers of snow, winter after winter. And then one winter, out of their love and longing, they fashion a child, a little girl made of snow, with beautiful eyes and hair of golden hay.
Enters Faina. Did the snow child really come to life? Did the fable, after all, was true? The elderly couple falls in love, again in their own individual styles. Jack keeps a distance, fearing the fleeting happiness will disappear again, leaving them even more desolate than before. Mabel keeps faith, she is the mother of the fable and Faina has come to life just for them. Happiness is within reach, if they dare.
Faina comes only in winters, refuses to stay with them, kills her own food, and disappears in summers while the old couple waits for her return with trepidation. She is the snow child, cannot bear heat, will not follow their rules, comes on her own terms, and leaves on her own time.
The couple watches, aching to touch the innocent cheeks, just to make sure that their ‘daughter’ is real. But they refrain. The confusion, and the illusion, is better than the certainty that she is not.
The helplessness of the couple’s love beats through the book like a nervous heart. Where does Faina stay in bitter cold? Why won’t she stay? But the happiness she brings is like the first snowfall. It signals the change in season for the couple. It brings up in them the courage to discard their lonesome existence, make friends, and keep them, and weather difficulties that life throws at them.
But the myth does not have a happy ending. The snow child chooses love over immortality, marries her partner, and melts to nothingness. Will the same happen to Faina? Or is it all in Mabel’s head? Is she mistaking a jungle child for a divine blessing? A case of cabin fever? Has her sorrow for her dead child made her believe in miracles where none exist?
The story keeps flitting between the real and the fantastic. The swan-killing Faina is real, but the snow does not the melt on her. She can’t breathe in the warmth that every human being seeks. And so Mabel, who so wanted the fairy tale to come true, now dreads the end. The anticipation of losing yet another child is too much to bear.
The setting of the book, Alaska, is a character in itself. The harsh landscape breathes and pulsates. The reader can feel the chilly winds slashing across the face, can see ethereal snow falling on silent and motionless nights, can imagine a lonely woman sitting in a cold wooden cabin, waiting for her man, knowing that is all the luxury the violently beautiful place will allow her. One wants to put an arm around Mabel, to tell her that she should return to a sunnier place. The same place turns into a brazenly wild and pretty haven with Faina’s entry. The urge now is to open the cabin door wide, let the breeze ruffle her hair, let the snow rub on her cheeks, to fall down on snow and make angels without the fear of getting wet and cold. She is the snow child!
The tale of love, loss and survival is not new. What is refreshing is it does not preach to overcome the grief. It is not a heroic tale of man pulling himself together to ride the storm. Because most men, and women, can’t. Mabel mourns her child. She mourns him till the end. There is no overcoming of some losses. She loves Jack, and he loves her back, till the end. There is no end to some loves. Faina saves them from their all-consuming love and grief till the end. But are they able to save her?
There is no refuge for mankind, but hope.