Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart - he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.
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I remember being struck by the austere beauty of the cover art when this book was first published. I added it to my stupidly huge ‘To Read’ list with no clear idea of when, or if, I would ever find time to discover if the book was as good as its cover. So, when I was trying to gather a list of suggestions that were suitably wintery, I jumped at the chance to include this Pulitzer Prize nominee.
It may have been the snow gently falling past my living room window, but I found that the author painted a wonderfully vivid picture of life in the Alaskan wilderness. Living in Maine gives me some appreciation of snow and ice, cold and darkness, but at least we are not as removed from civilization as the characters in this book. Indeed the bitter remoteness of their existence had me shivering along with them. It is difficult to imagine living in such a desolate situation, although I know that some people still choose such a lifestyle. Whilst I can understand their desire to be independent and self-sufficient, I would not be happy at the thought of moonshine as the main medical treatment available in the local area!
Strangely, the remoteness of the setting gave this title a rather timeless quality. With the possible exception of communications, I am quite sure that life in some areas of Alaska is very similar to that depicted here. Even in the 1920s, Jack and Mabel were turning their backs on many of the comforts of modern living when they moved from ‘back East’. Personally, I could probably live without electricity, but I would struggle with an outhouse in the middle of the Alaskan winter: I definitely approve of indoor plumbing!
Of course, remoteness was precisely what Mabel wanted when she suggested the move to the distant North West. I found her experience of miscarriage and family expectation very understandable. As a childless woman myself, I know how difficult it can be to continually have your differentness highlighted. It is awkward enough in the present day, so I can only imagine how much worse it was then. I was particularly aggrieved for her because the family knew about the miscarriage and should have shown more understanding that she simply could not have a child. However, I am aware that in this regard Mabel is a very unreliable narrator: the tactlessness and hints that she perceives may have been purely in her imagination and a creation of her own depression. That she is clinically depressed at the beginning of the story is shown quite explicitly when she walks out on to the frozen river: she has tried to make a new start and it has not solved her problems.
Needless to say, the beginning of the book is very dark in tone as both she and Jack spiral down into their own private wells of despair. Perhaps most depressing of all, at the beginning, is their isolation from each other. Each has retreated behind a barrier into a world of self-imposed expectations. They are both painfully lonely, even when sleeping together in the same bed. Their days have become an eternity of monotonous drudgery and self-sacrifice that seems to be leading them into exhaustion and, ultimately, failure. Both fear that they will be forced to abandon their dream and return to their old lives. However, neither of them is willing to share their fears with the other and so each is suffering without the vital support of their spouse.
Fortunately, all this changes when they are moved to make a snowgirl one evening. It is a testament to their lack of communication that neither of them mentions the apparent disappearance of the snowgirl next day. They are both so far withdrawn inside themselves that neither wants to reveal their thoughts about what seems to have happened. Of course, the girl soon returns to them and begins to transform them from tormented individuals into the loving couple that they once were. The process is slow and not without setbacks, but they gradually heal and transform into happy, productive people with an extended support system of friends and adopted family. In many ways, their journey is the real focus of the book and the mysterious Faina is simply the agent that causes this change.
However, the book seems to be Faina’s story as well sometimes, which does lead to my only issue with it. At first, it seems that she is a purely magical being. There are no footprints leading to the snowgirl, only ones going away from it, which suggests that she was somehow created from it. Also, her connection to the natural world certainly seems supernatural. She makes no real indentation in snow when she walks across it and seems impervious to the intense cold. She also has an uncanny ability to find, or perhaps direct, the local wildlife and appears to create snow and ice at will. The author even chooses to report her speech without the use of quotation marks, suggesting that it is telepathic rather than truly spoken. Of course, all of this is reinforced by Mabel’s repeated references to the Russian fairy tale contained in her book.
The author then makes what I believe is a misstep by providing an all too real backstory for the magical child. Whilst this allows her to then grow older and finally fall in love, it was very jarring to the original, magical, portrayal of the girl. One book group member suggested that perhaps an earlier repetition of the present circumstance: Faina being summoned by another person grieving a lost child. Whilst that fits some of the story, I felt as if that might be going a little beyond what the author intended. She seemed to make a definite attempt to convince us of Faina’s ‘realness’. I find such uncertainty rather unsettling, so I would have preferred to have had a clear identity for the agent of change.
However, I suppose that Faina’s nature is incidental to the transformation that she inspires, just as the beauty of a snowflake is not lessened by its ephemeral existence.