Downview Prison Reading Group review The Snow Child
We sent the HMP Downview's reading group a copy of Eowyn Ivey's first novel, The Snow Child. Cathy Wells-Cole reports on what the group thought:
The Snow Child is a retelling of a Russian folk tale in which an old couple with no children make a little girl out of snow. She comes to life, and stays with them all winter but when the spring thaws come, the child melts. Not very much to build a novel out of, but this one succeeds in drawing readers (the Downview reading group, for a start) into its own compelling world.
It's set in Alaska in the early 1900s, a harsh landscape, `lean and wild and indifferent', where winter lasts for months, and isolation is total. You feel for Mabel and Jack, whose decision to start a new life as pioneers is turning out badly: the land is intractable, they are getting older, Mabel is lonely, and they can't talk about the baby they lost back in Pennsylvania.
All this changes on the night they build what starts as a snowman, then becomes, as they add arms, small, white lips, and a blue scarf, a little girl made from snow. The next morning the snow girl is gone; then they begin to see something blue moving at the edge of the forest, footprints coming up to their cabin window. Has the snow child come to life? For a long time, the novel keeps us guessing.
Gradually, the child approaches the couple - rather like a wild bird learning to feed from your hand. At first, many of the group thought she existed only in Mabel's imagination; we also wonder if she is really otherworldly; but as the love between the couple and the child grows, we are given clues about her past which suggest she is a feral child, surviving along in the wilderness of Alaska.
This uncertainty about the real nature of `the snow child' is really the core of the novel: she remains elusive throughout, always appearing briefly, saying very little, never explaining herself, yet she does seem to be real. Herchildish fragility is matched by the toughness she has needed to survive. In fact the whole book is a blend of fairy tale (one of the group called it a fairy tale for grown-ups) and reality.
Jack goes hunting when food is short, and we see him gutting a moose, `up to his elbows in blood and bowels'. The child is an expert killer too: one scene, showing her trapping and butchering a swan, which puts up a fierce struggle for its life, is genuinely sickening - one or two group members just couldn't read it.
And there is sharp reality in the daily lives of Jack and Mabel: frost creeping between the logs of their cabin; moose heart and onions for dinner; damp clothes steaming in front of the stove. Around the edges of this existence, dancing in the snow or eating shyly at their eating, the snow child gradually brings change and love.
Because we know that the child in the original story melts, we feel an anxiety about how the novel itself will end. Ivey allows the child to become an adult, but one can't every adjust to a constrained life lived indoors. The end is sad but not heartbreaking. Ivey does succeed in staying true to her original while allowing Jack and Mabel much fuller lives than they had at the beginning. I think everybody in the Downview group would say that The Snow Child is a really good read.
The Downview group is part of the Prison Reading Groups project, supported by
the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Many thanks to Inside Time - the national newspaper for prisoners - where this review first appeared.