As someone with a penchant for folklore, fairy tales, and myths, Joseph Campbell is to me a sort of Demi-god of Scholarly Devotion to Things Most People Don’t Give Half a Hoot About. So when I read these tales, or adaptations thereof, he’s usually hanging out in the margins, giving a context for the story laid out before me. Knowing that The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey was inspired by the folktale The Snow Maiden, I kept coming back to my pal Joe. I could hear him say, “You can keep an old tradition going only by renewing it in terms of current circumstances.” If that’s the case, Ivey has ushered this old tale into a new world rife with need for it. Throughout my reading I could only wonder what it means to not only retell it in a modern(ish) context, but to shape it into a fully-formed and filled-with-life novel as Ivey has done.
The Snow Maiden, or Snegurochka, is a Slavic folk tale of an aging couple that is unable to have children. One night, the couple shapes a girl out of snow and she transforms before their eyes into a real child. They love her as their own and raise her, she is beautiful and imbued with magic, but in every variation of the story she meets an untimely death by melting. (Hey, it ain’t easy bein’ freezy.)
That’s the gist of it.
With The Snow Child, we find Jack and Mabel, middle-aged and childless after suffering a miscarriage years prior, a loss that still silently haunts them both. Ostensibly to alleviate the pain of being surrounded by the children of others and the whispers of their family at what they perceive to be “failure,” they head out to Alaska to homestead and make a new life in the 1920’s. But life is harsh and remote in the Alaskan wilderness; Jack is plagued by a sense of failure towards Mabel and Mabel is prone to melancholy and despair in their empty, quiet homestead. One evening in a moment of rare gaiety, Mabel and Jack build a child in the snow — a little girl — and the next morning find it presumably transformed into a real child; the child they’ve always wanted. The novel oscillates between belief in miracles and the discernment of a realist: is the child a magical snow sprite or a lost little girl living off the land?
“You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between you fingers.”
In the midst of this mystery other questions arise. What is Mabel looking for in moving to Alaska? Is she trying to prove that Jack’s and her love is enough to sustain itself without a family or society to fall back on? Or is she trying to prove that she can endure even in the harshest of conditions, to have the elements of her environment match the devastation of her emotions? Does she simply want to escape? We get flashes of answers to all of these questions throughout the book, and Ivey manages to capture the nuance of emotion that drives us to certain decisions. Pain is never any one thing, this or that, but a whole goddamned cacophony that swirls inside us like the snow flurries of the Wolverine River Valley where this story plays out. We see it in Mabel, but also in Jack, who, despite the stoicism he wears, experiences an equally complex emotional range.
“…and she would wonder if one could truly stop the inevitable. Was it as [her sister] had suggested, 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?”
I began to wonder what it would really be like for a woman in the 1920’s to be unable to have children. I can tell you that even now, when I tell people I don’t plan on having children, the immediate response is, “you’ll change your mind.” Well, I’ll be 30 in a few months and have no intention of changing my mind any time soon. I am not a maternal person. I don’t even really like kids. And I very much like to sleep and do what I want when I want. My point is that in 2017 it’s still a hard pill for many people to swallow that I might not feel inclined to go through this process that they perceive as fundamental to being a woman. But my womanhood is defined by so much more than my ability to bear children because my “womanhood” is just my selfhood, and there’s a hell of a lot more to me than my reproductive integrity or maternal yearns.
It’s a different story and a different time for Mabel. She has no career, no talking points with the ladies of her society who are all starting families of their own and preoccupied with this and only this, and no confidence to lose herself in her passions because she feels the judgment of others at every turn, worst of all her own. And she feels so much sorrow for the child she lost. Again, we are dealing with a topic that today people shy away from. Miscarriage isn’t something people feel comfortable talking about despite how common they are but in the 1920’s it’s a still greater taboo, a verbal barrier that Jack and her don’t even cross. The silence in this book is noticeable. The silence of the trees in winter, of the frozen river, and more palpably, the silence of their home. But something remarkable starts to happen to Mabel in Alaska amidst the silence, her sorrow, and the isolation: she begins to find herself and purpose. In this frozen landscape her spirit begins to thaw.
“She had survived, hadn’t she? Even when she had wanted to lie down in the night orchard and sink into a grave of her own, she had stumbled home in the dark, washed in the basin, and in the morning cooked breakfast for Jack.”
Due in part but not entirely to the visits from the snow child, Mabel discovers her own inner strength and finally has something to strive for and work towards. She also forms a bond with their neighbor, Esther, who is the least conventional woman Mabel has ever met, and through Esther’s carefree attitude Mabel is able to shed the weight of society she’s carried with her out into this wilderness. Mabel helps with the farm and finds the joy and satisfaction that comes with hard work and a job well-done, an experience that was never open to her before. This story begins to change from one of loss and pain to one of perseverance and the indomitable human spirit.
"By the time night fell, Mabel was numb with fatigue. She had never understood how Jack could fall asleep in a chair without washing up, talking to her about his day, or even removing his filthy boots. Now she knew. Yet for all the sore muscles and monotony, the days of working in the fields filled her with a kind of pride she had never known. She no longer saw the cabin as rough, but was grateful at the end of the day for warm food and a bedroll on which to collapse. She didn’t notice if the dishes went unwashed of the floor unswept.”
We see this same force in the snow child herself. Whether a mystical being or a flesh and blood girl, she accepts the love that Mabel and Jack offer her but doesn’t rely on it. She is unbridled nature personified and as she enters their lives the silence lifts, the woods come to life and we hear the snap of the trees, the steadiness of the wind, the crack of the river ice. Most importantly Jack and Mabel break their own silence and begin to heal. The snow child aids them in opening up to the love and wonder that surrounds them, both in their neighbors and the beauty of the land.
What we as readers are left with is the sense that the family we create is sometimes stronger than the blood relations we are born into. Mabel and Jack find their home in an environment that most would deem unlivable through the love and help of those around them. And in this sublime landscape they find each other, too. They learn to accept loss as a part of life and, painful and bittersweet though it may be, as the price of loving.
I turn again to my pal Joe who certainly walked through these pages with me. His brevity may more accurately reflect this story than what it took me ten paragraphs to say: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”