Reviewing books is often a good way to feel like a puppy-kicking sonuvabitch. And sometimes, when you find yourself the lone grump before a buzz juggernaut, you can feel like a crazy, puppy-kicking sonuvabitch. That's about where I sit after finishing Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur Books), a novel already popular in Europe, a novel the Christian Science Monitor and Oprah tell me to watch for in 2012, and a novel of which one enthusiastic blurber was moved to say: "If Willa Cather and Gabriel García Márquez had collaborated on a book, The Snow Child would be it."
Cue my furrowed brow.
What is this purported love child of unlikely literary parents? At first, it's a tale of hard times and snow. It is 1920 in Alaska, and homesteaders Jack and Mabel have left Pennsylvania to toil in a gulag of their own making. Struggling to build a working farm in the middle of the Alaskan winter, heartbroken over a stillborn child, the couple’s spirits are low, their food stores lower, and their prospects dim.
Before the situation improves (thanks to an enormous moose ex machina), Jack and Mabel take their troubles outside for a rare frolic. During a snowstorm, they build a little snow-girl who disappears into the night. Soon Faina, a winsome blonde child with a fox for a friend, emerges from the woods to bewitch them both. The central tension of the novel is Faina's existential status: Is she an actual child living off the land, a small ambulatory snow goon, or the product of lonely imaginations?
Interpolating a Russian fairy tale, Ivey keeps us guessing with a narrative that attempts to sustain the possibilities of both magical realism and real, unmagical realism. In a meta twist that forestalls a lot of beating around the bush, Jack and Mabel know the fairy tale (“Snegurochka”), and indeed possess an edition of Arthur Ransome's Russian folk stories. This device allows the Faina mystery to come right out into the open; Jack, Mabel, and the reader know that they are either in magical territory, crazytown, or somewhere in between.
But the is she or isn’t she real business can't endure to the last page of the novel; when the rubber meets the road, readers demand answers. I won't spoil things by revealing which direction Ivey ultimately takes Faina, but the more Faina matters to the story, the more Ivey patches the holes of one possibility with material from the other. If Faina's real, then she's just a little bit magical. And if she's magical, then magic is just a little bit real. If there were a voice-over for The Snow Child’s intensely cloying book trailer, that might be it. (NB: Stop trying to make book trailers happen.) Partisans of the book could argue that the particulars of Faina’s existence are not as important as the central themes of love and loss. But when Arthur Ransome is a character in your novel and Faina is always threatening to melt into puddles in a hot room, your mystery requires a satisfactory resolution.