This was a pretty good book, but I don’t really see what qualified it as a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
The story is about Jack and Mabel, an “old” man and woman of about 50 years (I no longer find that to be old age!) who have moved to the Alaskan frontier of the 1920s to try to establish a homestead. Before moving to Alaska Mabel had a miscarriage and that — her perceived failure as a woman — is the source of the couple’s deep sadness. One evening in early winter the couple build a girl out of snow, dress her in an old coat and mittens and a hat, add berry juice to her lips, sculpt her facial features, etc. When they wake up the next morning, the snow girl is gone and there are the tracks of a child leading from the place where she stood into the forest. Soon after, the couple begins seeing a lone child flitting through the woods, and Mabel writes home to her sister, asking for a rare copy of a book containing a Russian fairy tale about a snow child that comes to life.
I found the story to be more than a little confusing. At some points, the child, Faina, showed supernatural abilities like causing blizzards. Snowflakes wouldn’t melt on her face, and she could wave her hands and cause a snow shower. And yet at one point Jack buries a man she says was her papa, and Faina grows up. At first she can’t stand being in the heat of the couple’s house, but later she is able to stay during the summer instead of leaving the couple and following the colder temperatures into the northern mountains. Perhaps a familiarity with the Russian fairy tale this story is based on would clear up some of those seeming discrepancies. I don’t know. It isn’t explained in the course of the story.
On the positive side, though, the character development of Jack and Mabel is extremely well done. With the exception of Mabel’s formal speech pattern, the characters are totally believable and their interactions with each other and Faina are really what kept me interested in the story. The sadness the couple feel, particularly in the beginning when, on top of the loss of their baby, they have to face the very real possibility of losing their homestead and you can feel them drifting away from one another, is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
The setting, both the landscape and the weather, are also very well done. Ivey does a fantastic job depicting the farm, the forest, and the mountains. It’s obvious she knows the terrain and loves it deeply.
The ending of the story is pretty predictable, especially in light of the fairy tale book Mabel and then even Jack keep referring to. However, if you take into account the story is really about the relationship between Jack and Mabel, the fate of Faina is forgivable.
If you’re a fan of rather slow character studies, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. If you want a lot of action or to have all the mysteries solved in the end, this won’t be for you. Had I written my review immediately after finishing I might have given it 4 stars instead of 3, but the fact I’m a bit late and the story hasn’t been on my mind since finishing it caused me to lower my rating to a 3.