Book recommendation: The Snow Child

I hadn't thought much about eating moose before reading The Snow Child. In fact, I barely knew what a moose was. I had a vague picture in my head of a creature that looked like a cross between Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and some kind of cow.

But back to The Snow Child (we'll get to the moose eating in a minute). The reviews on the cover of the book called it "enchanting", "spellbinding" and "terrific".

I'm happy to report that this story is indeed all three. Without giving away too much of the plot, the story follows a middle-aged couple who moved to Alaska in the 1920s and found a child in the woods after building one out of snow the previous night. It is based on an old Russian folktale, with many variations throughout Europe. 

I met with author Eowyn Ivey for lunch while she was on a whirlwind visit to NZ. The Snow Child is the second novel that she's written, the first being what she called a five-year "practice run".

"If I had thought about it too hard at the time, it would have felt a little like...what am I doing?" she laughed.

Ivey is as charming as one of her own characters. And it turns out that she draws from her own life experiences to flesh out the details of daily life in the novel. It is visceral descriptions of things such as the butchering of animals for meat that make the book so appealing. Here's an example:

"...Esther took a veined, rounded muscle the size of a bread loaf and Mabel realised it was the animal's heart. Esther began to slice it thinly with a knife. Heat up the pan, dear, she said over her shoulder to Mabel. We'll have some of this with dinner. Fresh like this, there's nothing better than moose heart."

You get a real sense of the wild frontier that is 1920s Alaska in the novel - a place where the snow drifts in so thick in winter that it's virtually impossible to do anything but sit at home, surviving off the moose you shot before the weather got too cold, dished up with the potatoes you grew during the blink-and-you'll-miss-it summer.

Ivey says the first draft of the novel took her a year to write.

"I was very devoted and would write every night for an hour or two after the children went to bed. It was very hard, especially because we had a new baby, but my husband would make sure I did it. It took me less than a year to finish the first draft."

The basic theme of The Snow Child, she says, is that of a childless couple making a child out of another substance.

What I'm really curious about is the ending. I'm not going to give anything away, but let's just say that the book doesn't come with a neat, pre-packaged ending tied with a perfect red bow. This is where the novel blurs boundaries, so you're left with a tale that could be either magic realism or just plain realism. Ivey says she gets asked about the ending all the time.

"I'm curious to know what the reader thinks happened because I didn't withhold any information. That's everything I know about what happened. In the end, I think the mystery is the answer. I wanted to create the sense that there's so much we don't understand about the world around us, and that there is mystery and magic out there. I wanted the ending to be more an opening up, rather than a tying down."

Having journeyed with the characters through the wilds of Alaska, which is really just a metaphor for the turmoil inside their lives, I can't help but agree with Ivey. The beauty of The Snow Child lies in the hope that you can sense in every page.

The belief that somehow, some way, life carries on and in those few moments when you're not looking for it - magic happens.

Are you interested in reading The Snow Child? What other books based on fairytales have you read? Leave a comment below to be in to win a copy of the book!

* Next week's book club title is The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.

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