Posts Tagged ‘snow’

In her enchanting first novel The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey reimagines a Russian fairy tale and sets it in her native Alaska. So “once upon a time” is the 1920s wilderness of the Wolverine River, where middle-aged Jack and Mabel have come to reinvent their lives as homesteaders in beautiful but unforgiving solitude.

The couple’s only child was stillborn years ago; they still grieve. Mabel had hoped to be Jack’s helpmate as he carves out a farm, but he leaves her to cabin chores, and she now feels more alone than ever. But one night in the flurry of the year’s first snowfall, they remember their youth and fashion a snow child complete with scarf and mittens. The next day, the little figure is gone, but small footprints lead into the woods, and they begin to catch glimpses of a small blonde girl among the trees.

Is the girl real? Or is she just a dream? Perhaps a bit of both. Gradually, Faina, as they call her,  comes to be a part of their lives, “the child born to them of ice and snow and longing.” But only during the winter, and even then Jack sees her “like a rainbow trout in a stream” flashing her true self. “A wild thing glittering in dark water.”

Over the same months and passing seasons,  Jack and Mabel come to know their nearest neighbors, George and Esther and their three hearty sons, who won’t take no for an answer when it comes to helping out. Young Garrett, who hunts and lays traps, becomes a frequent visitor. He doesn’t see Faina.

Ivey’s story reminds me a bit of Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks, with its fragile balancing of the realistic with the mythic. Her Alaska is nature red in tooth and claw, and she never shies away from the brutal challenges her homesteaders confront. “Wherever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be.”

Mysterious, too, what with its dance of Northern Lights and snowflakes that somehow fail to melt on Faina’s eyelashes.

The Snow Child goes on a bit too long for so fragile a magic. Less would be more. Remember, too, that not all fairy tales end happily-ever-after. And be careful what you wish for.

Open Book: I borrowed a hardcover copy of The Show Child by Eowyn Ivey (Little Brown) from the Orange County Public Library. I promise I’ll return it soon; I know other readers are waiting.

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During the sweltering dog days of summer I wrote about some of my favorite cold-weather books in hopes all the snow and ice would make me forget the heat. Now I have another to add to that list, 1222, by Anne Holt, a best-selling Norwegian crime novelist.

Yes, baby, it’s cold outside, so I recommend you read this shivery, locked-in-with-a-killer tale next to a blazing fire and with a hot toddy at hand.

 A train derailment in northern Norway — 1222 feet above sea level — finds the 200 passengers seeking shelter in a nearby resort hotel, vacant except for the staff. The old lodge is well-stocked with fuel and food, which is a good thing seeing as how the fiercest blizzard in years is raging outside. Doctors who were on board tend to the wounded, including frosty Hanne Wilhelmson, a former police detective who is partially paralysed from a bullet in her spine. Hanne, anti-social to the extreme, reluctantly accepts help once her wheelchair is retrieved from the train wreck, and she proves to be an astute, albeit prickly, narrator.

She doesn’t think much of her fellow passengers, although she is intrigued by those she considers outsiders like herself, including a teenage boy traveling alone, a doctor undeterred by his dwarfish appearance, and the hotel’s brisk manager. Like everyone else, she wonders as to the identity of the travelers in the private railway car who are now ensconced in solitary splendor high in the hotel with a private, armed staff. But a more looming worry is the intensity of the storm, which is burying the hotel in snow to the point that windows shatter and an entranceway collapses.

Then there is a murder. A popular priest is found shot in the drifts right outside the door. Hanne can’t help but be drawn into the investigation, and when another murder soon follows, she  thinks of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

It’s an apt comparison, as is Christie’s The Mousetrap and Murder on the Orient Express, with the storm trapping victims, suspects and detectives in a confined space. Brrrr. . . .  If there’s such a thing as cozy Nordic noir, it’s 1222

Open Book: I read a digital advance of Anne Holt’s 1222 (Scribner) via NetGalley.

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How hot is it? My Dad once said it was so hot that he saw the chain on his bicycle slither off into the woods like a snake to try and get cool. I stole that line and used it in a Sentinel column I wrote years ago about weathering the heat by reading about cold, snow and ice.

“It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees.”

Brrr. The first lines of childhood favorite, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, always make me shiver. Part of it is Aiken’s evocative writing, but part of it is also anticipation of what lies ahead — two brave cousins, a wicked governess, and wolves howling in the darkness of the snowy English countryside. What fun! I happened to pick up my paperback copy while moving some books this morning and read it straight through. The resulting goosebumps reminded me of other favorite literary chillers.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a magical kids’ book as Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, opens his eyes to a mysterious snow-blanketed world, a “Midwinter Day that that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and he somehow knew, for centuries before that.”

And who can forget the icy evil of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” or the White Witch ruling over Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass  has snowy vastness and armored polar bears.

Want more adult fare? Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale is set in a fantastical New York City where a Brooklyn milkhorse realizes he can fly, a 19th-century village is lost both in winter and in time, and a mayoral election is won on a promise to restore snow.

Charles Dickens excels at cold, bleak houses and cities, as well as merry Christmas scenes, as in The Pickwick Papers. The Russians — Pasternak, Tolstoy — are old hands at deep freezes. Martin Cruz Smith’s chilly thrillers include Gorky Park, where blood freezes on the snow, and Polar Star, where a killer tracks his prey across the ice caps of the Bering Sea.

The great blizzard of 1888 howls through “Wickedness,” the lead-off tale in Ron Hansen’s Nebraska. In short vignettes, he chronicles the story’s heroes and fools, from a schoolteacher who shelters her charges in a haystack to a teen who walks across a railroad trestle over the Missouri River. “Every creosote tie was tented in snow that angled down into dark troughs that Addie could fit a leg though. Everything else was night sky and mystery, and the world she knew had disappeared.”

The snow “is general all over Ireland” in James Joyce’s delicate story “The Dead” from Dubliners. “He watches sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” The flakes are purely imaginary in Conrad Aiken’s dreamlike tale “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” representing a young boy’s retreat from reality.

This time last year I was cooling off by standing on a glacier in Alberta, Canada and gazing at snowy mountain peaks. Now I’m hibernating from the Florida sun with the AC on high and my book of Robert Frost poems. I will watch the woods fill up with snow. Then I’ll bid farewell to a young orchard. “Good-by and keep cold.”

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