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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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