Title: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivie
Genre: retold fairy tale, historical fiction
I seem to be thinking a lot, lately, about fairy tales. What they mean, how they influence me, why they continue to live on in a modern world stripped of all seeming magic. There are still bits and pieces of magic left, though, and I’m counting the serendipitious arrival of The Snow Child on my hold shelf as one of them. It arrived just at the beginning of my fairy-tale thoughts, feeding them perhaps but definitely giving me more to think about.
At its heart, this is a fairy-tale retelling of the Russian fairy tale "The Snow Maiden." It is the story of Jack and Mabel, who’ve left their fairly safe but exceedingly sad life in 1920’s Pennsylvania for the Alaskan frontier. Sad because, except for one stillborn, they never were able to have children, and all of the family reminders around them (the nieces and nephews, the new babies, the excited couples marrying) were just too much. Of course, life in Alaska is hardly easy either, with the short growing season, fierce winters, and isolation. Just when it seems that Jack and Mabel have reached the end of what they can stand, they find a friend in the Bensons, George and Ethyl, and their sons. And then, one night of clean snow and happiness, they build a snow girl, dress her with mittens, a hat, and a scarf knitted by Mabel’s sister back in Pennsylvania. In the morning, they wake to find the knitted clothing gone and a dead rabbit next to the decimated snow girl.
The real, live girl they eventually meet, Faina, is wearing the mittens and hat and scarf. Jack, the pragmatist, tries to follow her and figure out who she is and how she is surviving on her own. Mabel, however, remembers a story her father used to read her, about a couple who couldn’t have children but who built a snow girl and then loved it into life. She sends a letter back home to ask her sister to mail her the storybook. Meanwhile Faina comes and goes, a skittish, wild thing with leaves in her hair; to win her trust Mabel must move slowly and learn only by going.
In one sense, that is all there is to the story: Mabel and Jack learning how to interact with Faina. You never really know: is she the child made of snow? Or are the facts Jack uncovered her real story? Or both? It is also about the harsh beauty of Alaska, a "beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all." It is about how impossible it is for a parent to hold on, really, to her child. And the way that life seems impossibly painful one second and then unbearably beautiful the next, so that you are not sure which one you might trust. Is it, Mabel wonders, "that we can choose our own endings, joy over sorrow? Or does the cruel world just give and take, give and take, while we flounder through the wilderness?" About the way we are unable to see our spouses and what they really need, except for when we accidentally do see it, and then we must hold on to those happy accidents and pull that knowledge with us.
And it is an utterly enchanting story. I loved this book because I could let it be exactly what it is, which is just a story. It felt like exactly enough; not too cerebral, not too fluffy. Not fluffy at all, in fact. But not really cerebral either. Just…right. Like reading used to feel when you were a child, curled up with, of course, a fairy tale.
Just for fun, some other fairy tale retellings I’ve loved:
East by Edith Pattou. This is a retelling of the "east of the sun, west of the moon" tale (about the girl who lives in the castle with the polar bear); two other retellings of the same tale came out at about the same time, but this one, because of the writing and the shape, is my favorite.
Transformations by Anne Sexton. Her book of fairy tales retold as contemporary poetry. I've lost my copy and need to order a new one!
Spindle's End (sleeping beauty), Beauty (Beauty and the beast), and Deerskin (Donkeyskin; not for the faint of heart), all by Robin McKinley. I've also read five or six of her other books...She's become a favorite writer without me paying attention.
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. This is a retelling of a Scottish ballad, set at a university in the 1970s.
The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli. (One of my librarian friends, who met this author, told me a few weeks ago that her name is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, not the second like I was saying. Nice I've been recommending her for so long without saying her name correctly!) Napoli does fairy tale retellings in an edgy sort of way. This one retells Hansel and Gretel from the old woman's perspective. It's haunting.
Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. A retelling of the goose girl story. I liked it, but the sequel, Enna Burning (which isn't really based on one specific tale) is my favorite.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. Retells sleeping beauty as a holocaust novel. It sounds weird, but Yolen makes it work. A remarkable novel.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. My friend Kelly sent me this book one time when I was at a low point in my life. It was just the sort of escapist reading I needed—fairy tale, but not fluffy or overblown on the romance. I still love this book, ten years later!
Stardust by Neil Gaiman. This isn't based on one specific fairy tale, but on fairy tale conventions. One of those rare coincidences when the book and the movie are equally awesome.
Do you have a favorite retold fairy tale?