The mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

This book was almost ruined for me by Book at Bedtime. The thing is, I love that Book at Bedtime exists, I do, but when a full-length novel is compressed into 10 15-minute segments, then necessarily a lot is cut out. A lot. (For comparison, the unabridged audio book of this is almost 11 hours.) I listened to The Snow Child on Book at Bedtime and thought ‘Huh. I don’t get the hype at all.’ And that was very nearly that.

I had read so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers I usually share a taste in books with that I kept thinking that maybe I would give it another chance. Maybe. But I didn’t add it to my wishlist. So thank goodness I spotted it in a bookswap and decided to pick it up. From page one I was captivated.

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across a cow pond and turned the water to light.”

The story is adapted from the old Russian fairy tale “Snegurochka” and cleverly acknowledges this. Jack and Mabel are in their older middle age when they move to Alaska in the 1920s, looking for a fresh start. They cannot forget the sadness caused by their inability to have children and their marriage is fragile. Will the harshness of farming in Alaska heal them or break them?

“Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.”

The book opens at the start of their second Alaskan winter. Mabel is about ready to give up, Jack is seriously considering taking a very dangerous mining job that would take him away for most of the winter. Then the first snow falls and in a bittersweet scene of childlike play, the couple build a snowgirl. In the morning their snowgirl is gone and child-sized footsteps lead away from it. Are they just misreading the tracks in the snow? Did their snowgirl just get knocked down by a fox or other wild creature?

Perhaps, but at about that time they start seeing a small girl near their home, usually accompanied by a red fox, just like in the storybook Mabel remembers loving as a child, and she becomes convinced that they brought the girl to life with their desperate longing. The girl, Faina, slowly becomes a part of their lives. But is she real? Or is she, as Jack and Mabel’s (distant) neighbours George and Esther believe, a figment of their imaginations, a coping mechanism through the long lonely winter?

I like that the book provides realistic as well as magical explanations for everything that happens and never makes one more likely than the other. There is a definite fairytale feeling to the writing and yet it doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the Alaskan environment. Without ever getting repetitive or depressing, Ivey makes the cold and darkness of winter ever-present. But she also displays great love and respect for Alaska that I found enticing.

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.”

Just as I already knew the storyline before reading the book (which didn’t spoil it at all for me, though I’m still going to hold back from revealing any more of the story in this review) I also already knew, thanks to various reviews I’d read and an interview with Eowyn Ivey on The Readers, that whenever Faina speaks there are no speechmarks, for her or for the person speaking directly to her. But there are speechmarks everywhere else. This is a really clever way of maintaining the mystery, especially in the brief sections where it seems like maybe everything has been neatly explained.

Really, it’s a very simple story. And anyone who has read any of the versions of the old fairy tale (the Arthur Ransome version is included in my copy of the book, which I thought a nice touch) could have a fair stab at how it will turn out. But, for me at least, this book was about the language. Despite being hooked I read it quite slowly because it was the kind of language that slows you down, makes you want to take in each sentence. Exquisite.

Published 2012 by Headline.

Source: A book swap.

See also: reviews by Simon of Savidge Reads and Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Celebrate your freedom to read

This week is Banned Books Week in US and UK libraries, with the aim of raising awareness of the freedom to read, hopefully with an added bonus of getting people talking about censorship and its ramifications. I don’t know how big an event it is outside of getting book bloggers excited. There’s nothing on my local library’s website about it. But even if it’s just a series of articles in the Guardian, I hope that it does get this issue talked about.

I have certainly seen plenty of mentions on Twitter, and books blogs For Books’ Sake and Books on the Nightstand have some interesting things to say. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

These days censorship mostly seems to centre (at least in the UK and US, to my knowledge) around children’s books, or books that are deemed as being aimed at children. There’s a whole range of objections that stem from the viewpoint that parents know best – and not just for their own children but for all children. I understand a parent who knows their own child worrying that a particular book may be wrong for their child at that time and gently suggesting that they wait a year or three, but to insist that any book is banned from a school or public library is denying other children the opportunity to read a book, often classics. It is making the arrogant assumption that you know better than other people. And what does it achieve?

I believe in reading as wide a range of books as possible, especially as a child. In a privileged sheltered life reading is your greatest opportunity to learn more about the world, how other people think and live. While I would prefer that children not have to see a dead body until they’re grown up, I do think they should learn about death and reading is a good way of doing that. I also don’t see any point in hiding them from knowledge of war, prejudice, disability, disfigurement because they will find out that those things exist and wouldn’t it be nice if they were able to come to terms with that in the safety and comfort of their own bedroom? I definitely think children should learn about the normalities of life that aren’t talked about much with the young like what puberty is really like, relationships, sex, masturbation, religion, class/money, and books are the best way to learn about things like that.

I think children are often underestimated, that they understand and can cope with far more than adults give them credit for. I also think it’s important to expose children to lots of different concepts and viewpoints to prevent prejudices growing from not knowing anyone who’s black/gay/Mormon/whatever or indeed from believing playground talk, where “gay” and “spaz” are often accepted pejoratives. And if that child does think they might have different religious beliefs from their parents or want to stop eating meat (or start!) or stop wearing skirts even though they’re a girl won’t that be easier to talk about in the real world if they’ve encountered it in a few books and seen how it can work out?

Yes, there are some people who will write books that to most other people are hate-inciting, prejudiced, dangerous even. But the problem with any level of censorship is that someone, with their own personal set of morals, gets to choose what is and isn’t acceptable and to me that is a far more dangerous position. If I can read a story with an anti-Semitic narrator I can decide for myself that I don’t agree with their views but also learn a little about why they think that way, what exactly it is they believe and, being widely read, I will probably figure out that their hate is based on lies/misinformation/assumptions made with no basis. By not letting that person speak all we have is a hatred that no-one understands and therefore no-one talks about. And by letting someone choose what is and isn’t acceptable we risk letting books about important issues be banned because that person is in the small minority who don’t want children to hear the word sex before they turn 21. But that’s a whole different matter…

I have rambled on a bit, haven’t I? But this is important. Read everything! Let children read everything! And then teach them that the written word is not always the truth, even if it sounds like a fact. If they haven’t already figured that out from reading so much.