I had a few days to write and read this week. I finally posted on The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a slow-in-coming response that stalled both reading and writing. (I did read a quick mystery by Janet Evanovich that a friend lent me and I began paging my way through a very long historical novel, but I likely will leave my responses to both unwritten.)
So I began casting about for something new to read, something I might write about, and I picked up a novel I had seen reviewed in blogs and then on Amazon where it garnered good reviews and many stars. Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920 and is very cold – full of images of river ice cold enough to walk on, snowflakes and lovely swirls of frost on the window panes. It seemed the perfect antidote to what the newsmen are calling the “blistering” heat wave here in central Virginia. We have had electricity and thus air conditioning, but outdoor temperatures of around 100 make for indoor living. Nevertheless, I suppose I was hoping for the relief equivalent of Maine ocean swimming, something full of strong under currents and cold enough to make me forget the solid block of heat that slams me when I walk out my door. What I got instead in The Snow Child was dull as the week after a blizzard when thick snow has turned heavy and lumpy. While like a good storm, this novel began with the promise of adventure, it quickly felt old, labored, a slog.
Mabel and Jack, a childless couple nearing their 50s, have moved to Alaska to homestead 10 years after the stillborn death of a child. Mabel can’t stand being around Jack’s extended family, full of children and her failure. She thought their new life in Alaska would be a reprieve -- just the two of them together doing everything on their own. Sure enough, Alaska proves tougher and gloomier than Mabel imagined. So tough, so gloomy, she contemplates suicide.
But things turn around during a snow fall one evening when Mabel goes outside and throws a snowball a Jack. The snowball fight turns to others things and soon, the two are giddy young lovers frolicking in fresh snow, building a snow girl complete with yellow grass hair, Mabel’s hand knitted red scarf and mittens. The next morning the snow girl’s gone, but soon Mabel and jack spy a blonde child flitting through the woods, wearing the scarf and mittens. Mabel worries about a child alone in the Alaskan wilderness. I don’t. At this point I shout: Mabel, get with it – this is the magic part, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.
Mabel and Jack befriend the child who comes into their home – where she is always too hot and has to keep the door open (hint hint). Mabel starts to get it. She half remembers a fairy tale she knew as a sheltered child back East . Mabel writes her sister and carefully casually mentions the fairy tale book. In the meantime, Jack has followed the child into the wilderness where he finds both a door in a hillside of snow and later a corpse the girl tells him is her n father. He promises not to tell anyone, and helps her bury dad. (The corpse seems real, so maybe she is too!)
The fairy tale book arrives and though it’s in Russian, a language Mabel doesn’t read (her father translated the story as he read), the reader is informed by the sister’s letter about the various versions of The Snow Maiden most of which end in melting. Not to worry, though the sister suggests other possibilities: “What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyong me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?”
I know I’m being set up for seesawing back and forth between possibilities; real or not, here she comes. I know this story will have some odd twist at the end, maybe joyous, maybe not, that’s intended to surprise, but I’m not sure I care. So far, I don’t really like Mabel. Or Jack. Or the little girl. Or their only neighbors – the wholesome, cheery successful frontiersman and woman, the Bentons who advise and help. All are as wooden as the deck outside my kitchen that would burn my bare feet if I stepped out there to look at my withering garden right now. The writing strikes me as stilted and graceless.
I start to worry about myself. Maybe it’s me and not the book. Maybe I have the excessive heat equivalent of cabin fever, that northern condition when it’s been so cold so long that you start to go stir crazy from being indoors too much. Maybe I am becoming that creature I dread most, the jaded reader.
Though I usually finish books I start – no matter how dull, no matter how clumsily written, I put this one aside when I go to the library looking for audio books for a long drive I’m soon to take and pick up Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in the new book section. No need to buy it. No waiting list. I check it out, knowing I’ll need to read it and return it before leaving. I dive in – and find the heat relief I was looking for – a gritty reality full of complex stories with multiple undercurrents. Stories about a deathless man and a tiger’s wife that are magical. Really magical. Hovering between fable and the war- torn Balkan landscape, they make me unwilling to tease apart what’s real, what’s not. Rather I’m fascinated by how the stories are real. Long ago I learned fiction is the closest I often get to truth. I let Tea Obrect lead me to whatever truths she knows - down the stories of two generations of doctors in the Balkans. Two days later, I am done, still savoring the intertwining stories, waking up thinking about them and the mysterious woman in the middle who unites both. I will write more, maybe deeper thoughts on this book later. Here are two quick, shallow ones before I begin.
Thank you Tea, for not using real place names. I am grateful not to feel the need to turn to Wikipedia and maps to fill in the gaps of my world knowledge. Though I don’t know Balkan history in detail, I know enough.
On the other hand, Miss Obrect, I almost passed up this book because of the title and though I agree that it suits your book, I am growing weary of what I have come to think of as relationship titles. Those are titles that include the word wife or daughter, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife (a book I thought about as I read yours), The Pilot’s Wife, The Mapmakers Wife, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Hangman’s Daughter etc. I might, however, be curious enough to read a relationship book titled “The _______________’s Husband.”
As for The Snow Child, I’m starting to plow though the snowy rest of it – but won’t write about it again unless my feelings and thoughts change dramatically.
Final thought for this week: Mediocre magical realism is neither. This genre is difficult to pull off.