Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze

frost on window
Frost on our window

It was a bright winter’s day when I took this photograph, but it came out dark, evoking for me the deep winter chill of our snowbound evenings in upstate New York, which are perfect for reading books by the fire.

Before winter’s end, you must read The Snow Child.  Based on a Russian folk tale, The Snow Child suspends readers between fantasy and reality in remote, 1920s Alaska. (One of many English versions of the Russian folk tale is “The Little Daughter of the Snow” in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.)

Mabel and Jack, a childless, middle-aged couple, move from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan Territory to homestead on 160 acres of land. For ten years, they’ve been locked in a private world of grief over their stillborn child; Mabel, especially, hopes to escape from and the young families and children in Pennsylvania who remind her of her sadness.

One day, Mabel and Jack build a snow child whom they dress in a red scarf and mittens. The snow child melts, but a little girl with a fox begins to appear in the woods around their cabin. Is she real, or is she an unearthly fairy child born of their own longing? You’ll find yourself seesawing between Jack’s harsh, real-world view of who, exactly, the girl they call Faina is, and Mabel’s wishful, fantastical, mystical one.

For me, The Snow Child (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was ideal reading: perfect for the time of year, entrancing, deceptively simple storytelling set in a frontier that has fascinated me of late. I kept thinking of the breathtaking world evoked in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes of virgin land, animals and people at risk from encroaching civilization, and I think of Faina as a metaphor for the wild and untamable.

Faina embodies, for me, my deep-rooted desire to have and love children. Mabel and Jack, through Faina, do find their hearts’ desire but, like all parents, they eventually must let go.

I loved how Mabel finds another kind of fulfillment through her art, and learns to channel grief, insights, and a growing love of the natural world into renderings and sketches.

The Snow Child is our city’s “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” choice for 2014. The author, Eowyn Ivey, will travel here from her home in Alaska for three days (March 19- 21) of readings and talks at local schools, libraries, and Rochester’s Writers & Books.

We take “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” very seriously here. We began marking it in January with countless book clubs discussing The Snow Child over tea and hot chocolate; writing workshops and readings by Ken Waldman, an Alaskan poet and fiddler; short, short plays that contain the word “fox” written and performed by locals at Geva Theatre Center; and for kids, making paper snowflakes and readings/discussions of fairy tales from Russia and around the world.

Still to come:  on February 20 a presentation of “Alaskan Odyssey: Cruising the Inside Passage and Beyond”; on February 28 an exhibition of winter images at Image City Photography Gallery; on March 4 a demonstration of basket weaving in the Alaskan tribal pattern; and a Snow Day party with music, fruit pies in flavors inspired by the novel, and a scavenger hunt on March 7.

On March 8 a how-to-survive-in-the-snow adventure at Mendon Ponds Park sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter will explore whether or not a little girl could survive in the winter wilderness. Also on March 8 there will be an Afternoon of Winter Fancies: Creative Movement Workshops and Flights of Winter Fancy at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance; and on March 18 – 19 an exhibition of quilts inspired by The Snow Child, sponsored by the Genesee Valley Quilt ClubEach quilt will be a “novel” and feature the artist’s love of quilting and reading.

On March 4, Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski, who has been to just about every country in the world, will host a Sleeping in Ice class at the Penfield Public Library. (Rick has spent many nights sleeping in igloos and snow shelters; my husband travelled to Alaska with him, but that’s another story.) Rick will demonstrate how to make an igloo in the backyard and how to survive a surprise blizzard in the mountains.

For those of you who are local, you can find a complete schedule of Snow Child events here.

Snow Maiden in forest
Snow Maiden, Viktor M. Vasnetsov

The Snow Child book cover

4 thoughts on “Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze”

  1. Sounds like some great events in your neck of the woods. The Snow Child seems intriguing and the picture of the Snow Maiden very cool. Enjoy the author’s reading.

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