Thursday, January 17, 2013

International Fiction Book Club Meeting (January 16, 2013) - "Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

         The International Fiction Book Club met the evening of January 16th to discuss the debut novel of Alaskan author, Eowyn Ivey.  The Snow Child was inspired by a Russian fairy tale that Ms. Ivey came across while sorting books at the bookstore where she works.  In an interview with a Burlington, Vermont radio show, “Write the Book”, Ivey explains that she knew instantly this was the source material she was looking for to write a novel.  Jack and Mabel are an aging couple in their late forties who left the relative safety of Pennsylvania to homestead in a remote area of Alaska.  We come to find out though, the reason for their decision was a desire to get away from anything that reminded them of their stillborn child.

         This is a tale of a fairy tale contrasted against the powerful, unforgiving landscape of 1920s Alaska.  I say powerful because the exposé of nature in its wild, fierce and magnificent glory takes center stage in Ivey’s novel.  More than the struggle to survive, the reality of death in many forms leaves a lasting impression on the reader.  To begin the book, we are faced with Mabel’s attempt to commit suicide by crossing the partially frozen Wolverine River.  We see how the marriage of Jack and Mabel is frozen too and only begins to thaw with the help of the Benson family who befriends them.  Though times are tough and the prospects not good for survival through the winter, Jack is talked out of working at the dangerous copper mine by George Benson.

         With the help of George and his sons, Jack makes progress in his fields before the first snowfall.  When snow finally comes, Mabel and Jack build a snow girl in front of their cabin and dress her in mittens and a scarf.  They also make love for the first time in a long time.  As in the fairy tale, the next morning the snow girl appears to have come to life.  Ivey weaves vague sightings of a young girl wearing the scarf and mittens by both Jack and Mabel around the fragile sanity that Mabel sustains during the dark months.  We believe Faina is real only when Jack follows her far into the mountains and discovers the frozen body of her dead father.  Jack buries the father but keeps it a secret from his wife who is familiar with the fairy tale from her childhood.  Mabel is determined to not lose this chance of having a child but she harbors the sense that the “wild child” Faina is somehow the offspring of the fairy tale.  Throughout the novel we are confronted with the killing of both wild and farmed animals.  Jack shoots a moose that will keep him and his wife alive.  Garrett, the youngest Benson watches Faina kill a trapped swan.  Esther Benson chops the head off a turkey and greets Mabel for the first time with blood on her face.  Jack and Mabel must slaughter their chickens for food.  Faina throws a wolverine she has trapped at the feet of her future husband, Garrett.  Whenever the movement of the story becomes a bit too sentimental, Ivey mixes in a fresh dose of nature in all its savagery.

         Reactions to the book were varied but mostly positive.  The concern was raised that certain details just didn’t seem plausible.  Can chickens be raised in an unheated barn in Alaska?  Would Jack be able to build a cabin and a barn by himself?  Could a young girl really survive in the snow and mountains by herself?  As we talked about the flaws of the book and whether or not it leaned too heavily on a fairy tale to tell the story of Alaskan homesteading in the 1920s, we almost always came back to the way the author used the various viewpoints (Mabel, Jack, Garrett) to expound on the presence of a larger, more prominent character - nature.  It was noted that we never enter into the mind of the snow girl, Faina.  The author cleverly left out quotation marks when Faina speaks, thereby her character does interact more with myth than reality.

         Though one voice at first claimed the book mundane, he later praised the vivid descriptions of flesh exposed to the natural world.  Others thought the writing effective and enjoyed the fairy tale aspect of the book.  One participant even speculated that the ending of the book was pure fantasy and he just went with it and enjoyed it for what it was.  The ending will remain a secret here for I suggest that, if curious, read this book.  Though not a masterpiece of literature, I recommend it as an easy and well written tale that caused me to shed a tear.

         We next meet on February 20th to discuss, Snow, by the Nobel winning author, Orhan Pamuk.  Please pick up a copy at the front desk and join us.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk