It’s foggy and damp and mild this morning, definitely not very "wintery" weather, but I’m still enjoying my chai tea and a slice of Date Bread as I think about the "snowy" books I've read and listened to recently.
Imagine living in the Alaskan wilderness with no television, no phones and no internet, in fact, no way to contact anyone except by letter or face-to-face. That’s just what my volunteer book group had to do with the book we read and discussed yesterday, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a modern retelling of an old Russian fairytale. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, this novel tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who have moved to a homestead in Alaska to escape their past grief and start anew. “Back east” in America (possibly Boston, but I'm not sure), they were surrounded by family members, but when Mabel lost their baby, her grief was such that she could no longer face being in the company of families with children. Counting on Jack’s experience running the family farm, they decide to try their hand at farming in the harsh environs up north, seemingly as far away as they could get. The opening chapter sees Mabel intent on ending it all, but her attempt fails and she is determined to live another day. She and Jack go out in the snowstorm that night and play as though they were children themselves. Deciding to build a snowman, what they create instead looks more like a child. Jack sculpts elfin features on her face, they colour her lips with cranberry juice, and leave her with a scarf and mittens made by Mabel’s sister, Ada. They return to their cabin and, feeling happier than they have in years, they make love and fall asleep curled up together in their cozy bed. When they awake, they notice that the snow child is gone, along with the mittens and scarf, with just a pile of snow remaining. They begin catching glimpses of a child running through the woods surrounding their cabin, and each secretly tries coaxing the child out of hiding. When this is accomplished, they begin to “tame” her, to include her in the various activities of their lives. She resists, but eventually comes around, telling them that her name is Faina, though she never seems fully committed to their way of life. When spring comes, Faina disappears, and Jack and Mabel are distraught, searching for her, convinced they have lost her forever. When she returns with the first snowfall, they are thrilled to have her back in their lives, and thus a pattern develops. During this time, Jack also encourages Mabel to make friends with the woman at a nearby farm (nearby being nearly two hours away by cart!), and although she initially resists, she falls under the spell of Esther and George and their three boys, particularly the youngest, Garrett. Esther is loud and bold and wears trousers (gasp!), completely the opposite of bookish, intellectual Mabel, but they form a strong bond that endures and sees Mabel through the toughest times at the homestead. These long-time homesteaders can shed no light on who this child could be, and Esther is concerned that Mabel is suffering from “cabin fever”, imagining this child to fill her own need. Is this child real, or is she a fairy, a wood sprite who appears and disappears at will? While there are more plot developments that seem to suggest an answer, this question is ultimately left to the reader to decide. I’d never read this book before including it on the list, but for December, I generally try to choose something either “light”, uplifting, or Christmas-themed, or sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find a good choice that ends in December, like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or Letters from the Country by Marsha Boulton. This one was a good choice because so much of the story took place in the winter, and snow was a significant feature (although there is no snow on the ground here right now and it’s not even very cold outside!). All of the book club members agreed that it was an interesting story and we liked that it was based on a classic Russian fairytale. We also agreed that, while it started out really interesting, the middle section dragged and was too long, but then the story picked up again and was a bit of a page-turner to the end. We put forth our ideas about what happened at the end, but despite our uncertainty, we felt that this did not detract from the enjoyment of the book, and that it actually suited the magical elements of the whole novel. This was a great book for a discussion group, exactly because of this vagueness and uncertainty. We discussed the more serious themes of loss and grief, parenthood, isolation, and the importance of various relationships in people's lives. But the magic-realism aspects of the book kept it fairly light, too. We discussed fairytales, and talked about the origins of these stories and how they’ve been “sanitized” to be suitable for children. Because of our discussion, I am now inspired to go out and read the original Grimm’s Brothers stories! For a debut novel, Ivey did an excellent job of bringing the Alaskan wilderness to life for readers. I would definitely recommend this book to other book clubs.
And I finished listening to an audiobook, A Cold White Sun by Vicki Delaney. Set in the fictional northern BC town of Trafalgar, this novel opens with a middle-aged woman taking her dog for a long walk up the snowy mountain on the first day of March Break. As she stops to take in the view, shots ring out and she falls, dead, in the snow. An investigation ensues, and various townspeople are questioned and released. Family secrets and hidden connections are revealed until, after another murder attempt, the perpetrator is apprehended. There is also a romantic subplot, and different relationships among townspeople are explored in this cozy murder mystery. Part of the “Constable Molly Smith” series, this was an easy book to listen to, although the naive attitude of some of the townspeople was sometimes irritating. I would listen to others in this series if they were available in audio format, not one right after the other, as the stories are too simplistic for me (I’m not a big “cozy mystery” fan), but it was just what I needed after the complexities of The Silkworm. I’ve now moved on the The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin, and I suspect that complexities abound in that book!
That’s all for today. Happy reading, everyone!
Bye for now…