There’s a phenomenon in the field of letters that I call “the 75 per center.” I use this expression to describe books that engrossed me for three quarters of the way through. The remaining portion failed to live up to the beginning so badly that I regretted investing the time to read the book. After Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train I now welcome the newest member of the “75 per center” club: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.
This story began with immense promise. Set in the 1920 Alaska, Mabel and Jack had just moved there. They’d left their families and Pennsylvania home following the death of their child shortly after his birth. The wilderness proved much harsher than expected. They faced that struggle while tacitly confronting the deterioration of their marriage. Then a young girl entered their lives. “Mabel saw her glancing blue eyes and small, impish face. She was no more than eight or nine years old.” (Page 56) Jack wondered if his wife hallucinated. Then he encountered her also.
I liked that story line. I also thought the author did a nice job adding the character of Esther Benson. This neighbor and veteran of the Alaskan wilderness possessed a more positive outlook and strong disposition. She provided an exceptional contrast to Mabel. Her interactions with the couple made her very likable for readers like me.
I found The Snow Child very well written. I thought the following passages outstanding.
Garrett wasn’t prepared for the screaming. Faina’s voice had always been clear and serene, like a glacier pond, but now it was ripped from her throat in a beastly, tortured growl. (Page 360)
The leaden sky seemed to hold its breath. (Page 22)
She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at the heart. (Page 3)
In addition to the alliteration cited above, the author included some in her description of a “barely broken, better” horse. (Page 12)
All of these aspects made The Snow Child an enthralling read. The author really hooked me into wanting to know what would happen next.
And now the bad news.
The legend of “the snow child” served as the cohesive theme that held the entire story together. Mabel’s father worked as a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania. During her youth he shared a book with her that illustrated several such tales. (I write illustrated because the tome’s author wrote in Russian.) In addition Ms. Ivey included excerpts from several of these myths as the introductions to Parts One, Two and Three of her novel. As a writer myself, I did appreciate the author’s sharing her source of inspiration with readers.
I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will note that others have criticized the Part Three of the book as well. It seemed to me that the author may have attempted to incorporate elements from various “snow child” tales into the character of Faina. Because of the diversity in these legends, I didn’t see a lot of opportunities for overlap. I thought that if the author selected one, focused on it and then applied it to her story it would have given the book a more understandable and gratifying ending.
I found the first two parts of The Snow Child that rare combination of a well-written tale with a great story. Part Three ruined it for me. I felt very glad that I could go outside and experience the warmth of summer after finishing it.