Do you ever read a book with one of those literary claims to fame, a big award or a finalist for a big award, and think, oh this must have something and then you read it and you're all wtf, why do they lie so hard? Because it's happened to me. Not to name names or anything. Cough. I'm happy to say that The Snow Child, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was not that kind of experience for me.
You guys. THIS BOOK. I bought it pretty spontaneously - I had a vague interest in it but only decided to actually buy it because I was trying to stretch a gift card and the book I really wanted cost more. But in retrospect, that is just fine. It is the book for me. How often can you say that? I read books that I like, love even, but rarely have the urge to say "this is the book for me." I could ramble on all day.
So, the book opens on an elderly couple from rural Pennsylvania who have moved to Alaska to start a homestead. It's 1920 and Mabel and Jack are essentially in total isolation from anybody but their closest neighbors. The couple, Mabel especially, aches for the child they never had. Despite having wanted this move, Mabel is dangerously depressed from a lifetime of loss and loneliness, and being cooped up in a cabin all day while her husband works their farm. During the first snow of the winter, in a fit of lightheartedness, they build a snowgirl. In the morning, the snowgirl is destroyed and the scarf they'd wrapped her in is gone, to be seen again on a young, seemingly wild girl who hunts the woods around their home with a fox. Like the character from an old Russian fairytale, the girl disappears come spring and transforms the lives of the old couple into whose lives she has wandered.
It's hard to know where to start with this book because so much of it was just so right. I guess what stood out to me at first was the depiction of Alaska. It's not just a place but another character, one who looms over everything and gets in other characters' head. It is simultaneously stark and beautiful and dangerous, and like the people, it changes and develops over the course of the book, into something close and familiar. Something that really struck me was that this was the same Alaska portrayed in Into the Wild - despite the 70+ year difference, Alaska seems the same in both - untamed and dangerous.
Then there's the writing - it's lovely, flowing, and strikes the perfect balance between action and description, never going overboard on either. This is a technical thing, but I really enjoyed how quotation marks were not used in dialogue with Faina, the girl in the woods.
Which brings me to the story. It is a retelling of an old Russian fairytale, which Mabel is aware of. It brings a touch - not too much - of magical realism to the stark realism of the rest of the novel. Though most of the couples' experiences and struggles stick firmly to real life - sadness, longing, depression, injury, the cold, poverty - Faina, the little snowgirl, brings a question to all of that. Is she a fairy tale come to life or is she merely a child that an old woman wishes was something more? Is she a story or a solitary child living off of the land? Ivey does an amazing job of writing her both ways at once, like when she sweats in the hot cabin - is it because she's used to the cold or is she actually melting? It's subtle and Ivey draws just enough attention to it to make you wonder.
The ending sustains that question and is so fitting and right. I could have done without the epilogue, but I can always do without the epilogue, and at least it wasn't sickly sweet like some can be. Basically, I love this book and almost wish that I hadn't read it, so that I could come to it fresh again.