Narrated by Debra Monk
Length: 10 hours 51 minutes
Jack and Mabel have moved to the brutal yet beautiful Alaskan wilderness after Mabel’s inability to accept her life as a woman who can’t bear a child. Jack, a hard working yet emotionally stunted man, is very enamored of Mabel and hopes that the move will lessen her pain and bring them closer together. But the winters are hard in Alaska, and the couple’s ability to survive the first winter with little comfort and scarce provisions proves to both of them that this is indeed a wild and untamed land. As they make friends and learn to both farm and forage, they do indeed survive, and when a playful snow fight evolves into the couple building a little girl made of snow, they go to bed happy and safe in each other’s arms. But in the morning, the snow child has disappeared, as have the hat and gloves that adorned it. Soon they discover a girl child in the woods and wonder if the magic of their love and longing have created this perfect being, a daughter of snow made flesh. But as winter passes, the young girl, who calls herself Faina, disappears, along with the fox that she hunts with. Soon it’s summer, and the couple believe that their strange little snow daughter has left them forever. But as winter once again approaches, Mabel is hopeful that Faina will return to them. It’s a life of waiting and wondering, of unspeakable joy and terrible sadness. As Jack and Mabel begin to organize their lives around this strange creature, Jack discovers a secret about the child and her origins that he hides from his wife. Is Faina really a wonder come to life? Or is there another more sinister reason that the child is living in the woods alone? As the pieces begin to come together in this modern retelling of The Snow Maiden, Eowyn Ivey brings to life the magical and haunting tale of a wild a feral child and the couple who grow to love her.
When this book came out, there were so many positive reviews that I took immediate notice of it. I had never read The Snow Maiden, which is the fairy tale that this story is based on, but the secret urgency of a child who comes from the winter and melts away during the summer was fascinating to me, so I purchased the audio version and listened to it compulsively. The narrator, Debra Monk, was the perfect choice for this book. Her voice was strong yet gentle, and the delicious slowness of her cadence and vocal delivery brought the hidden symbolism and strong emotional resonance out of the tale in just the right ways. This story called for a gentle but firm narrator, and this is exactly what Monk brought to the table. I listened with rapt attention while staring out the window at the nature beyond. It seemed the perfect accompaniment.
This book was set in the 1920s, a time when there wasn’t much known about the frozen and stark state of Alaska. Mabel and Jack’s choice to relocate there and live their lives in the wilderness is seen as strange and foreign to her family. In reality, Mabel is tired of the awkward silences that fill the room when a sister or cousin’s child enters, and the whispers and pity that seem to follow her everywhere. The couple is middle aged and they will never have another chance at having a child. Mabel decides to leave the bosom of her family to survive in a place that is cold and barren, much as she is, and Jack, being as loving to Mabel as he can, sets off to begin a life that he knows nothing about. Their first winter is dire, but thanks to the aid of another family, they live to see the summer. They also create a little girl who Mabel convinces herself is magical. But soon their hearts are broken when the little girl disappears with the snow.
This is a tale that takes on many forms. It’s a tale of mysticism and reality, despondency and elation, and holding on versus letting go. Faina is a strange creature in herself. She’s very young, yet totally independent. She is wild. Yet somehow she sees the need in Jack and Mabel, and realizes that she also needs human companionship. In a graceful narrative arc, Ivey gives her readers a glimpse into the elements of survival throughout a bare and alien winter, and also shows how our desire to possess something can not only blind us to the truth but also lead to futility and desperation. These elements are balanced out with the beauty and hopefulness that Faina brings to Jack and Mabel and everyone who meets her. It’s a strongly redemptive tale, but one that is both exhilarating and full of tribulation. It’s a quiet story told with loud emotions.
The truth about Faina is eventually revealed, but that doesn't stop the couple from loving the girl who they seem to have made from snow and their love for each other. As she grows, she eventually goes through all the stages that a young woman does, only with Faina, her absence during the warmer months makes things a little more complicated. Jack and Mabel love her as their own, but she’s a child like no other, and the little things that parents impart mean more to her than she can verbally express. As the couple watch her grow and mature, they begin to fear that they will not only lose her to the woods, but to another thing altogether. It’s a tense and riveting plot, and what was formerly gentle and suffused with a humble pitch of love and longing begins to rotate towards danger and loss. As I listened, the imagery of what life was like in the Alaskan wilderness became almost hypnotically soothing and lulling.
This was a kind and gentle tale at a time when I needed it most. It explored the deep connections that humans have towards others and the peace we can find in ourselves. I loved every moment of this book—not only for its fairy tale feel, but for the internal propulsion of the tale. I haven’t read many books like this one and would feel confident to say that most of those out there probably haven’t either. Take this one home with you and get comfortable. It’s worth it. Recommended.