It was pure whimsy that led Mabel out into the snow to start a snowfight with her husband, Jack, and build a snow-girl with him. Until that point, they had been having a rough time on their Alaskan homestead. The couple were running low on money and supplies. The winter of 1920 might be their last in the wilderness before they had to pack it in and go back east. The morning after Mabel and Jack made the snow-girl, they found it destroyed and started to see a small girl running in the woods nearby. From this point on, it’s hard to tell if The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, is historical fiction or fantasy because we can never really know if Faina is the Snow Maiden from the Russian folktale or the orphaned daughter of a Russian trapper.
Long before we get to know Faina, we learn about what made Mabel ask her husband to set up a homestead in Alaska. They used to live in Pennsylvania on a prosperous farm, surrounded by Jack’s family. But Mabel never really fit in. After their only child was stillborn, Mabel convinced Jack that they should move to Alaska, to a life much harder than she ever realized. Much of The Snow Child is a survival story, in which Mabel and Jack weather various disasters and calamities that ruin or kill them.
After Faina appears, the novel revolves around winters. Faina only shows up after the first snow and disappears before the spring breakup. Though she is very young, she resists all efforts to stay in civilization. Fortunately, she has learned to take care of herself. She is hardy and canny—more than Jack and Mabel are. Curiously, Mabel is more accepting of Faina’s absences when she believes that the girl might actually be the Snow Maiden from folklore.
The frontier, at least in fiction, is a strange place where reality is simultaneously more and less real. On the one hand, a mistake or an accident can kill. Settlers have to plan ahead and take care to survive. On the other hand, without others to argue and contradict, a settler might become convinced that they are fostering a girl who walked out of a Russian story book and that this is entirely logical. Perhaps it’s a product of being alone too much, but it certainly makes like more interesting. The Snow Child is a wonderful examination of this strange dichotomy.