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A fairy tale retold

Payel Dutta Chowdhury, Dec 9, 2012 : 18:54 IST
The Snow Child
Eowyn Ivey
Headline Review
2012, pp 384
395

Greatly inspired by The Little Daughter of the Snow from Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales and Snegurochka from Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales by Lucy Maxym, Ivey’s story brings the readers back to their childhood world of magic and fairy tales.

An old childless couple struggling with their loneliness and the difficulties of surviving in Alaska, builds a snow-child in a moment of frivolity to find it gone the next morning. Instead, they see a blonde-haired girl running through the woods who appears at their doorstep after a few days. As time passes on, the couple gets much attached to the girl, who calls herself Faina, and probably sees in her the child that they had lost. Profoundly affected by this loss many years back, Jack and Mabel are terrified of losing Faina, who becomes a frequent visitor, but comes and goes at her own will. Faina seems to be a child of the wilderness, living in the woods on her own and completely at ease with the brutalities of nature. Many things about her are veiled in secrecy that leaves Jack and Mabel perplexed in the beginning, but gradually they learn to accept Faina as she is and look for her visits during the winter as it starts snowing.

Jack and Mabel’s burgeoning relationship with Faina erase the purposelessness in their lives and improves their marital relationship as well. Succumbed by the difficulties of surviving in an alien land, loneliness and failure, the couple who had drifted away from each other, are able to bond again. Mabel, who had given up on life and contemplated suicide at one point of time, finds her life taking a different turn as she becomes absorbed in stitching new coats and clothes for Faina, whereas, Jack’s burden of earning a livelihood takes a back seat with the growth of his fatherly concern for the child. The bleakness of the Alaskan winter as well as the hurdles in the couples’ lives gives way to an increasing affection for their homestead and the new life that they have started. Faina brings in love, fun and companionship to Jack and Mabel’s life.

The importance of friendship, especially in a place like Alaska where companionship is of utmost importance for survival, is wonderfully portrayed by Ivey. Once Faina comes to their lives, Mabel, who was quite a loner, becomes ready to socialise and make new friends. Jack and Mabel’s friendship with George and Esther Benson add a new dimension to their lives. Fun-loving, ready to help and filled with practical wisdom, the Bensons prove to be God’s gift to Jack and Mabel. Esther Benson, with her straight-forward attitude and friendliness, is able to pull out Mabel from her cocoon and gradually they become great buddies.

Much of the novel revolves around the author’s depiction of the relationship between parents and children. Overshadowed with the grief of the death of their only child at birth, Jack and Mabel try to hold on to Faina, never to let her go away. The love and care that they bestow on the child, year after year, as she comes and goes with every passing season, seem to develop into a strong bond. As time moves on, the old couple seem to take Faina’s absence during the summer and her irregular behaviour in their stride, and the only thing which they get worried about is her safety in the wilderness. Even though Faina has always been a little aloof from the love showered on her by the couple, she can’t help telling Mabel, “I wish to be the mother you are to me,” as she realises the unconditional care and love bestowed on her for so many years.

Ivey creates an ethereal, fairy-tale-like quality to the novel through her spellbinding descriptions of nature and the portrayal of the enigmatic character of Faina. The novel’s unexpected ending leaves a mixed feeling of sorrow and joy in the reader’s mind. The Snow Child leads us to nostalgic memories of fairy tales which have made significant impact during our childhood days, and have continued to resonate with us as adults. The novel makes a commendable read owing to its gripping story, powerful characterisation and vivid imagery.

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