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Friday, September 9, 2016

Here with the child in the trees, all things seemed possible and true.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Snow Child is a story about love, loss, enchantment, and communing with the wilderness. It follows Mabel and Jack, an older couple who have recently relocated to rural Alaska after losing a child back in the Northeast. Our time period is the 1920s, and the book begins rather bleakly with Mabel feeling lost and disconnected from the world. Things slowly begin to pick up for the couple, and one night, they recapture their romance and have a youthful snowball fight. They decide to construct a child out of snow, and much to everyone's (and no one's - HELLO, title?) surprise, the child becomes a Real girl. We spend the next several hundred pages trying to discern if this child (Faina - Fah-EE-nuh) is, in fact, a magical winter sprite, or if she is actually just a lost little girl who has no family and Happens to be able to survive the Alaskan frontier all by her lonesome. Jack and Mabel firmly occupy each end of the spectrum (Mabel - magic, Jack - real) for various reasons, and the only neighbors in the area are convinced that Mabel is just losing her mind from cabin fever. The couple has some more ups and downs over the years, but eventually prove they can hack the Alaska life, with some help from the neighbor family's son, Garrett. In a somewhat odd (and, in my opinion, unwelcome) plot twist, Garrett falls in love with Faina, who is continuing to mature. Then, in another surprising (and definitely unwelcome) plot twist, Faina gets preggo-my-eggo. Jack gets all 'what are you doing with my snow/real/idk daughter', and Mabel is all, wow, Faina, you're a Wommman now, and Garrett is all, YAY, a happy Alaskan family! Faina seems very lost, and not at all interested in anyone's thoughts, or the child-to-be. The child eventually appears (a boy) and not too long after, little miss snow-person just up and Disappears. Like, melts maybe? It's all rather confusing. Jack and Mabel and Garrett take care of the little dude (who I guess is a Real boy? supes unclear) and then at the end it snows and Mabel gets all teary-eyed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, if it wasn't clear from my plot summary, I had pretty mixed feelings about this book. I liked the concept, and had a really amazing moment when I realized that the story she was extrapolating from was one that my mom had read me and my sisters as kids (Lex and Di, see the picture? Do you remember?) I also really enjoyed reading about Alaska in the middle of July and August, the hottest and my absolute least favorite months of the year. But I felt like the story dragged a little and she tried to take on too much with the plot line. I really wanted to like it, as my bosom buddy Mar gave it to me a little while back; I'll take this opportunity to share the bits I did like (and you can tell me whether you liked making those bits).

A magpie - imagine it's dancing!
-- Alaska as a character
When Mar and I were chatting about this book, she had a great line about Alaska serving as a main character. I think the novel's real triumph is its portrait of Alaska - both its natural beauty and its harsh realities. Here are some of my favorite lines:

"Wherever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be... Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man's struggle."

hoarfrost - isn't it a great word?!
a fat-footed lynx!
"Everything was sparkled and sharp, as if the world were new, hatched that very morning from an icy egg. Willow branches were cloaked in hoarfrost, waterfalls encased in ice, and the snowy land speckled with the tracks of a hundred wild animals: red-backed voles, coyotes and fox, fat-footed lynx, moose and dancing magpies." Fun facts: (1) I recently saw my first three moose on a moose-spotting adventure with my good friend Dan in Maine and NH. We think they were cow moose (ladies) and I still really want to see a bull moose (dude - think antlers) but they were super cool! (2) One of our colleges this summer at Breakthrough was Lesley University, whose mascot is a lynx. I definitely thought it was some sort of weasel-like creature; I had no idea it was this super cool and bizarre looking cat-creature! Look at its funky ear tufts! And its tiny tail!

--Mabel's desperation
OK, so this will out me yet again as a depressed person, but often I identify most with a character when she is struggling to find her way or feeling lost. The book opens with Mabel in a dark place, contemplating (and actually attempting) suicide. To be fair, she's been living in darkness for a long time, since the loss of her child, and Alaska's brutal beauty hasn't quite lifted her up yet. I thought there was such poetry and poignancy in this opening passage.

Mabel intentionally and literally walking on thin ice near their cabin:
 "She slid her boot soles onto the surface and nearly laughed at her own absurdity - to be careful not to slip even as she prayed to fall through." It's fascinating that our survival instinct is so strong; even when we act out of desperation, our brains are hardwired to protect us.

"It was unexpected, to look forward to each day." This is a line from Mabel after they've connected with Faina, and after she's filled a void in their lives. I feel this way quite often. I mean, certainly I'm coming out of a time where I felt a lot of darkness for a variety of reasons, and job searching doesn't often inspire one with confidence and joy, but I do hope that some day I will reach a point where each day is a happy surprise, a present to be unwrapped. I envy this sentiment in others.

--The pies were to represent her
One of the things I liked best about Mabel is that she's a baker, and proud of it. When the neighbors come for the holidays, she puts a lot of thought into what to bake, and I loved her process:
"Early Thanksgiving morning she rose, well before Jack, put more wood in the stove, and began rolling out the dough. She would make a walnut pie with her mother's recipe, and also a dried-apple pie. Was it enough, two pies? She had watched the boys eat, swallowing great mouthfuls and cleaning plates effortlessly. Maybe she should make three. What if the crusts were tough, or they didn't like walnuts or apples? She shouldn't care what the Bensons thought, and yet the pies were to represent her. She might be curt and ungrateful, but by God she could bake." So often I have put my baked goods out to others to represent me - to share my feelings, my love, my apologies, celebration, experimentation - and it's always nerve-wracking, hoping that they will do me proud!

--Mabel and Jack make a snow child
I love the scene when Mabel and Jack have the snowball fight and end up constructing the snow child. It felt delightfully innocent, and whimsical in a world where survival came at such a high price. I was also reminded of when we would make snow people in our front yard. Diana's and mine were generally functional, but Lexie always had a knack for bringing artistry to the wintry white powder. When I imagined Faina, I imagined Lexie's snow lady from one of our childhood blizzards.

-- Faina
I thought this name was a little pretentious. I mean, I think she was trying to go for magical, a bit ethereal, but it just felt forced, especially when she told us as readers how to pronounce it. Here are my favorite back of the book notes on the Faina sitch:

Jack is firmly convinced Faina is real.
Mabel believes Faina is magical.
Why must it be either/or?

I was struck by this contradiction, and perhaps that's what Ms. Ivey wanted us to grapple with. Can something or someone be both real and unreal? Could magic be a part of our world, yet not an entirely separate thing? I've always thought of magic as either a world of its own or nonexistent, but perhaps that's too limiting a view. I like the idea of the snow child having a foot in both worlds.

Faina and Garrett, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G
OK, so I know I said I wasn't into the whole Garrett + Faina relationship, but I did like this line about their wilderness courtship. It reminded me of Tea Cake and Janie's intimate first dates:

"They studied the mud in the trails, pointed to tracks and named them. Garrett tried to teach her how to call like a love-sick bull moose. Faina tried to teach him the songs of wild birds. Then they would laugh and chase each other through the trees until they found one with wide boughs and a bed of spruce needles beneath it. There they would huddle together and taste each other's lips and eyes and hearts."

After finishing the book, I decided to compile a pro/con list re: living in 1920s frontier Alaska:

Things I would LIKE about living in this fictional Alaska:
  • Snow - snow is my favorite. If you know me at all, you know how much I like snow. And Alaska is swimming in the powdery goodness. (Do you realize the street value of this Mountain?) 
  • Opportunities to cook hearty food - the only thing I like better than snow is crisp weather. Crisp weather means plenty of chances to cook warm, hearty fare, hobbit-style!
  • Canning, jams, pies - um, Hello - my 18th century woman skills would be SO useful here! Need I say more?
  • Farming - Mabel has a great line in a letter to her sister back home - "It is a wonderful feeling to do work that really feels like work." She's talking about their farm, and digging potatoes, which I actually just got to do with my mom! Granted, we only found about 5, as it was a volunteer potato plant, but still! So fun to dig in the earth and find... TATERS! Sooprize!
  • Opportunities to knit, crochet, sew, quilt - hello, Form AND Function? Perfection.
  • Plenty of time for reading - Mabel has a great book collection and she often lends them to Garrett. I love the idea of a limited supply of novels and the intimacy of sharing them.
  • Beautiful nature - amazing wildlife, wicked natural beauty, the list goes on and on!
  • Time for snuggling under blankets and by the fire - these are a few of my Favorite Things!
Things I would NOT LIKE about living in this fictional Alaska:
  • Eating moose meat - this is not a known fact from experience, but rather surmised from my dislike of venison, which my mother used to claim tastes 'just like beef'. Not true, mom. So not true.
  • 24 hours of daylight - feel free to google 'midnight sun'; OR
  • 24 hours of darkness - will the sun Never Shine Again?
  • Only having one neighbor - I mean, I like the idea of a rural lifestyle, but one neighbor many miles away is a leeetle remote. Where will I borrow my cup of sugar?
  • Having to hunt or kill our own animals - I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't love the idea of having to slaughter my own chickens, or go out a-hunting moose with my hubby. 
Here are some new words I learned:
catawampus - askew, awry; out of alignment (as in, Meredith is feeling all catawampus in this job search holding pattern she's stuck in.)

ptarmigan - a northern grouse of mountainous and Arctic regions, with feathered legs and feet and plumage that typically changes to white in winter (see picture on left - I love its fluffy feet!)

johnnycake - a flat cornmeal cake typically baked or fried on a griddle (possibly coming from 'journey' cake or 'Shawnee' cake) (like I said, Hearty Fare!)

burbot - an elongated bottom-dwelling fish that is the only member of the cod family that lives in fresh water (aka, Craybags-looking fish. See right.)

I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines -

"Moonlight fell in the hollows."

and this exchange:

Mabel: "What if we lose her? What if she never comes back to us?"

Esther: "'Dear, sweet Mabel. We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. It's all a mystery, and when we say any different, we're just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?'

As Esther says, life is one big adventurous mystery. It will all work out (we don't know how - it's a mystery!) but until then, I'm back to my sickbed and my job hunt. Wish me luck!

Off to the world of Mr. Malcolm X.

1 comment:

  1. excellent! I don't think I ever said venison tastes just like beef - it can pass for it in a stew , though - it's not my favorite.