Having lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for 44 years, I was very anxious to read this book. It has an Alaskan theme and is touted as being written in the style of magical realism. I love literary fiction that is rich in characterization and language and this book has an abundance of both. It is bound to be one of the best books I'll read in 2012. The story is beautifully rendered and rich with metaphor. I could hardly bear to put it down.
Mabel and Jack are homesteaders who come to Alaska rather late in their lives. They are both close to fifty years old when they begin their Alaskan venture near the Wolverine river way in the backcountry. The story opens with Mabel contemplating suicide. She describes Alaska after her failed suicide attempt as a place of "beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all". She and Jack are growing apart rather than closer and she misses him desperately. Slowly, they become friends with their closest neighbors, Esther and George, and this helps Mabel some. However, she says of Jack, "they were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn't smiled at her in years".
Mabel comes from an intellectual family - her father is a professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She feels lonely and empty in her cabin. Just before they came to Alaska she gave birth to a stillborn boy. This was one of the primary reasons she wanted to get away from her family. She felt they were always looking at her and judging her as wanting, talking about her as not being a strong woman. Jack is busy with clearing and farming the homestead and he won't let Mabel help with this. He sees her job as staying in the house to cook, clean and bake her pies. They are barely making ends meet and Jack is contemplating taking a part-time job in a mine next year. Their situation is dire.
The wilderness is described in an awe-inspiring ferocity of beauty and fear. "Wherever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be. The spindly black spruce were so dense in places you couldn't squeeze an arm between them, and every living thing seemed barbed and hostile." "Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man's struggle." Alaska's beauty is also described wonderfully - the northern lights, the wild animals, the rivers, waterfalls, snowfalls and alpenglow. "Maybe that was how a man held up his end of the bargain, by learning and taking into his heart this strange wilderness - guarded and naked, violent and meek, tremulous in its greatness."
The work is too hard for Jack and Mabel is suffering from cabin fever. One night, however, in a lightness of spirit, they decide to build a snow child. It turns out to be a girl with a lovely face, blond hair, blue eyes and chiseled lovely features. Mabel gives it mittens and a scarf as well. Shortly after building the snow child, they begin to see a child darting in and out of the trees. The snow child they built has disappeared and the child they see running around is wearing the same clothes as their snow child had been given. Is she real or is it a hallucinatory figment of cabin fever and overwork? Mabel and Jack see the child, follow her footprints in the snow and even get to meet her. However, no one else has ever seen her and there is no other family living near them with a girl child. Where has she come from and where does she live?
The story loosely follows the metaphorical fairy tale of The Snow Child, Mabel's favorite story from childhood. However, Mabel is fearful of the story's outcome and does not want to look at the coincidences too closely. The girl they meet is named Faina - Fay-ee-na. They begin to grow close to her and their lives change. "Mabel was no longer sure of the child's age. She seemed both newly born and as old as the mountains, her eyes animated with unspoken thoughts, her face impassive. Here with the child in the trees, all things seemed possible and true."
This is a life-affirming book, one that is close to the heart. It is never silly or maudlin. The writing is rich and lyrical, the characterizations full and complete with each person known and mysterious at the same time. We follow each of them through joys and sorrow. In many ways this is a book of perfection, one that is consummate and incomparable to any other I have ever read. I know it will live on in me and that I will have to re-read it. Thank you Ms. Ivey for bringing me back to Alaska through your eyes. What a wonderful way to see this world.