Only the tragically misinformed would ever sigh over the night's first star and wish for a real fairy-tale ending. Long before Julia Roberts made prostitution look so romantic and Disney sauteed the Little Mermaid in marshmallow fluff, fairy tales were full of unsettling transformations and traumatic bargains. Those authentic stories scratch anxieties and longings deep within us. Children, of course, know this, even as they're gently redirected into the sanitized happily ever after.
Fortunately, there are still fine writers willing to venture into the dark forest of fairy tales, from A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood to Aimee Bender and Neil Gaiman. (My, what big sales you have!) But it's a difficult act of wizardry: One wrong spell and you're cast out of the kingdom of literary fiction or, worse, left suspended between YA and adult fiction, too hot for one group, too cold for the other.
How delightful then to find this lovely first novel inspired by a Russian folk tale. You may remember "The Little Daughter of the Snow" from Arthur Ransome's "Old Peter's Russian Tales." A childless couple forms a girl from snow and, in answer to their longing, she comes to life. That's essentially what happens in Eowyn Ivey's "The Snow Child," but the author has transported the story to her native Alaska and fleshed it out with an endearing set of characters.
Elements of this story make sentimentality as tempting as a witch's gingerbread house, but Ivey never strays far from the original's underlying sadness. The novel opens with a scene of chilly silence: It's 1920, and Mabel and Jack have fled the civilized world of Pennsylvania to homestead 160 acres in Alaska Territory. Mabel "had imagined the two of them working in green fields framed by mountains as tall and snowy as the Swiss Alps," but after two years, the isolation and darkness are too much.
Mabel has "withered and shrunk in on herself." Afraid to use a gun, she ventures out onto the lake to drown, but the ice thwarts even that plan and she treads home to spend another day with her husband, "each of them fading away without the other's notice."
But the bleakness of their farm isn't the only thing weighing them down. As we learn in the opening pages, Mabel had hoped that at the edge of the continent she would never have to see or hear another child, another reminder of the stillborn infant who was their last chance for happiness.
In Ivey's clear, simple voice, neither bathetic nor overwrought, Mabel and Jack's yearning for a child feels as palpable as frost. The grief of miscarriage spreads out over this landscape in all its blank-white pain.
That desolate opening, though, gives way to an irresistibly happy scene when these two people forget their sorrow for one night and begin horsing around outside, acting like the children they miss so much. Jack makes a little snowman. On a whim, they dress it up with yellow grass and a scarf.
The real magic of this story is that it's never as simple as it seems, never moves exactly in the direction you think it must. (Beware what you read or hear about "The Snow Child." The plot is a fragile crystal of suspense that will easily melt in the hands of enthusiastic fans.) Who is the little girl that Jack spots running through the snowy woods, moving "like a rainbow trout in a stream"? Can it be the snow child that Mabel remembers from the fairy-tale book of her youth? "What she was seeing could not be," Ivey writes, "and yet it did not waver."
Whether she really exists or not, Faina, as they eventually call her, will capture your imagination just as she captures Jack and Mabel's. With "grey-green lichens, wild yellow grasses, and curled bits of birch bark" in her hair, she scampers among the trees with her fox, appearing and disappearing without warning.
She's another in the growing crowd of fiercely independent girls we've seen in recent fiction including Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!," Bonnie Jo Campbell's "Once Upon a River" and Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones." At first, Faina is "a phantom, a silent blur," "fanciful and yet feral." And she grows no less mysterious and magnetic when we get to see more of her. She hovers between reality and fantasy just as this novel does.
Although Ivey teases us with surreal elements, they remain an elusive scent in these pages, which are grounded in the deadly but gorgeous Alaska landscape. And there's nothing make-believe about the tender solicitude between Jack and his wife of 20 years.
He sees the transformation in her when she believes "the child was born to them of ice and snow and longing," but he's wary of her magical thinking, terrified that she won't survive another loss.
"Her capacity for grief frightened him," Ivey writes, and her fear haunts even the happiest scenes in this novel, which is a captivating mix of melancholy and whimsy. (The fairy-tale instinct must run deep in the author's blood: The name Eowyn comes from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings.")
As much as I loved falling under the spell of "The Snow Child," in colder moments I became aware that it's too long. The plot isn't really complex enough and Ivey's style isn't rich enough to support 400 pages.
Nine years as a journalist for The Frontiersman have helped her develop an honest, transparent voice and a bracing knowledge of this raw terrain. But a more aggressive editor could have invisibly pruned away at least a quarter of this to let the story move as agilely as Faina darts through the woods.
That said, when I was wiping my eyes at the end -- must have been snow blowing in my face -- I felt sorry to see these kind people go. Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy.
That isn't a feeling literary fiction seems to have much use for, but Ivey conveys surprising moments of happiness with such heartfelt conviction. Mabel's sister puts it well in a letter from Pennsylvania: "In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees."
You'll catch that same magic in the leaves of this book.
By RON CHARLES
The Washington Post