Friday, December 28, 2012

Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child: Analysis of a Debut Novel

The Snow Child: Analysis of a Debut novel

Publisher: Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books (November 6, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0316175668
ISBN-13: 978-0316175661

I am Jealous.
I am Sad.
I have read the book that makes my Favorite Read of 2012.

This was a bookclub choice for me; I would have eventually found it, I’m certain, like true loves are meant to be together. Ivey’s debut novel is a beautiful and tragic but hopeful, as all excellent stories should be.

Full of hope, full of despair, questions with only enough answers to keep the reader hungry, The Snow Child blossoms and melts, leaving an ice cream headache and the memory of something so delicious you want to taste it sparingly to keep the magic.

The Snow Child is a retelling of a favorite fairy tale of mine: a couple longed for a child, and even in their elder years, they never gave up hoping. One magic snowy winter day they built a snowman and went to bed. The next morning the snow man had come to life as their own little girl who could only stay with them as long as the winter lasted.

Ivey’s retelling is set in her home state of Alaska, where in 1920 Jack and Mabel have come to start a new life. Having never fully recovered from the loss of a stillborn child, Mabel convinces her husband to move far from their families and attempt to reclaim something of themselves and their dreams in the wilderness of the north. Some years into this bleak existence, Jack and Mabel learn that no one can truly outrun who they were meant to be, nor conquer humanity alone. They reach out to their nearest neighbors, the Bensons, who have a boisterous household of active boys and a thriving farm. Mabel realizes she must adapt or give up.

Which of them spy the child first? A little girl creeps to the edge of Jack and Mabel’s farm, just close enough to be seen. It is to Jack that she reveals her terrible secret, and Jack who bears this burden. When the little girl, Faina, becomes more than a wish, Jack and Mabel and the boy next door, and even Faina herself, must make choices to become the people they were meant to be.

Character growth in a setting and place that is somewhat universal and bigger than life and time are key ingredients to create a lengthy book shelf stay in a novel. Re-creating or re-telling a familiar tale without vulgarity creates an intimacy with an audience who already loves the story and serves well to speak to established readers who may not know you. A debut novelist must also have an enormous voice, connections that outweigh talent (though in this case that’s not entirely true), and the chops to back up your creation. Excellent opportunity for discussion in a topic either outside the box, combined with unanswered questions that don’t topple a premise are crucial for that all-important word-of-mouth sales crusade that keeps a book from being a fly-by-night gimmick.

Why I’m jealous: Ivey uses an experimental technique in the telling of her story. Minimal points of view are perfect: Jack and Mabel’s voices occasionally intersect but never parallel each other, and when the child is spoken of, to, heard, discussed, no dialog marks are used. This wondrous method works to convey the illusory nature of the child. Is she real? Is she there? Who can hear her? Are they really talking to her? It is Faina herself who slips and becomes real to the neighbors…as real as they let her be. It also serves the end of the story when cruelty, pain, despair, and resulting gentle joy are afforded the same consideration: is it real, is it true, will it stay forever, or am I dreaming?

Why I’m sad: Usually I’m sad because a book ends too soon. Usually it’s when I know there won’t be a follow up or a sequel and I want one. In this case, Ivey answers enough of the questions expertly, and leaves all the ones readers really want to know. It’s the perfect kind of book for discussion, but I know that in my eclectic book club, some will hate it. I hope I am surprised.  

Flashes of incidents, the picture I carry in my mind’s eye, a footstep, the sound of ice cracking…these are things more than names or detailed story arc that stay with me after the last page. I have not reached the point where I want to read the book again, but I will. The themes of friendship in unexpected places, hope, sorrow, death, and quiet peace are universal, but most real in Alaska in 1920 in The Snow Child.

What gift do you want to leave your reader?
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