I have sat down several times since I finished this quiet and lovely book last week, trying to figure out what to say about it, coming up short every time. I’m not sure I have the words in me to write this, but I’m going to try.
It’s the Alaskan frontier in 1920, and Mabel and Jack — an older, childless couple, from “Back East” in Pennsylvania — are giving the whole frontier experience a try. They’ve been at it for a couple of years, and it’s not going well: Jack can’t seem to make the land work for him, and Mabel is becoming desperately helpless in the face of the cold, the dark, and the silence. Then, in the first snowfall of the year, a bit of whimsy overtakes them, and they build a snow child. It doesn’t seem like much, but the next morning, the snow child is gone, and in its place is a little girl, half-wild and almost unwilling to be tamed.
Mabel and Jack take to the girl — who may or may not be a fairy child; in many ways that question is irrelevant to the purpose of the book, for whatever the jacket copy may say, this is not a fantasy — whose name is Faina, and slowly adopt her into their family, even though she never lives with them. Even though she disappears each spring, returning with each snowfall. By knowing Faina — and for us, by following her story and that of Mabel and Jack — Mabel and Jack come to know and appreciate and love the wildness of Alaska, with all its joys and pains.
In many ways this is two books in one: yes, it’s a story about a childless couple coming to terms with both the hardship of a new life (which they chose), but also the hardship of the loss of their only child as an infant. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s a love story of the wilderness: from the breathtaking descriptions of the snow-covered landscape to the brutal way in which the animals are hunted for food, Ivey captures life in the Alaskan outback with meticulous detail. I almost wanted to go see it for myself.
It is a soft and poetic book, something substantial enough to curl up with and enjoy on a cold winter’s night and yet magical enough to provide an escape from everyday life.
Rated: Mild for a few instances of mild swearing, and for some premarital sex (all off-screen).