When Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey called her mother to tell her that Ivey’s magical and gritty first novel, “The Snow Child,” had been named the January selection of The Buffalo News Book Club, Ivey’s mother announced the news to a hometown family gathering.
“I could hear a big cheer in the background when she told them,” said Ivey.
It should surprise no one to learn that the family cheer rang the rafters in a house in Hamburg.
Ivey’s mother, Julie LeMay, grew up near Orchard Park; LeMay’s parents, Jim and Michele Hungiville, live in Hamburg.
The Western New York connection only became known after “The Snow Child” was selected by the Book Club, and now local readers can enjoy the brilliant novel by a woman we feel free to claim as a daughter of Western New York. It’s far from the only acclaim for “The Snow Child,” set on the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. The book is a national best-seller, won several top writing awards and was one of the finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which was won by “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson.
The success of “The Snow Child” has surprised Ivey. “I have been completely flabbergasted, to be honest,” she said, laughing. “After I worked as a reporter for a lot of years, I was a bookseller, and I felt like I had a sense of what a tough road it is to even get published. There are some wonderful books out there that I know personally and enjoyed greatly and that just haven’t gotten the attention they have deserved, so I was preparing myself to say, ‘If I’m lucky enough to find a publisher, I can give the book to my friends and family.’ ”
Instead, thousands have enjoyed the story of Mabel and Jack, a couple nearing 50 who move to Alaska to homestead, endlessly battling harsh and inexorable nature. A Philadelphia native and daughter of a college literature professor, Mabel finds herself not immersed in the freedom and intimacy with Jack she anticipated, but in a rough and solitary world.
“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart. When she washed the dishes, plates and bowls clattered as if they were breaking to pieces. The only sound not of her making was a sudden ‘caw, cawww’ from outside. Mabel wrung dishwater from a rag and looked out the kitchen window in time to see a raven flapping its way from one leafless birch tree to another. No children chasing each other through autumn leaves, calling each other’s names. Not even a solitary child on a swing.”
This, then, is the frozen shard in Mabel’s heart, that her only pregnancy ended in stillbirth. The cold, dark isolation seeps into her life in every way. A lively family of neighbors cheers them on Thanksgiving; then, in a rare light mood, Mabel and Jack build a small snow child, a girl. The next morning, the snow figure is gone, and Jack discovers bare child-sized footprints in the snow.
As Mabel and Jack interact more with the flitting, feral child, who is accompanied by a fox, Mabel realizes that she is familiar with this story, from a Russian folktale. As the girl, named Faina, gradually enters their cabin and then their lives, Jack solves a bit of her mystery. But her ability to thrive in the bitter forest hints at her extra-worldly origins, which are woven throughout this gritty story of physical and emotional survival.
“I came across the fairy tale when I was working at the bookstore, in a simple paperback children’s book,” said Ivey. “There was something about it that made me think that this is the story I want to tell. It spoke to me on a lot of levels, the similarity of landscape but the idea that this magical thing could happen in my own backyard. There was something about it that really struck me. But then, although I wanted to tell the story, I didn’t want it to be a fairy tale, I wanted it to be a real story of real people.”
First, Ivey said, “I had to figure out who these people were who would be in this situation, who were this older man and woman who haven’t been able to have children and are in Alaska and have this experience.” She often is asked if her characters are pieced together from the traits of people she knows, and although that is a small influence, she said, “In many ways these characters are different aspects of myself, and I think that’s probably really common for authors. In order to tell a character’s story, I really wanted to empathize with them, to have some part of myself in them, so that I could really fully understand them.”
The neighboring Benson family plays a key role in Mabel and Jack’s story, the hardworking husband and sons set off by tough, fun-loving Esther. “Esther is one of my favorite characters,” said Ivey. “She was a total surprise. Obviously she is not in the original fairy tale, she just popped up for me as I was writing, I totally didn’t know where she came from, and I was so happy. It’s not a funny book by any means, and it needed some lightness. I always say for me she is the quintessential Alaskan woman. I admire this trait in a lot of my friends and neighbors, the women here who are just going to do what they have to do and have a fun time while they are doing it.”
Ivey, whose mother named her after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” lives with her husband, an Alaska native, and two daughters, 14 and 6, in a rural area about 70 miles northeast of Anchorage. “We are fortunate we’re on the road system,” she said. “A lot of people who live in Alaska can only travel by airplane or snow machine, but we live on the road system. We can get to Anchorage relatively easily, but we live out a little ways. We live in a neighborhood with lots of other people who have 10 or 20 acres, and we have chickens and dogs, and our neighbors have horses.”
Ivey is immersed in writing her second novel, which, like “The Snow Child,” is set on the fictional Wolverine River. The new novel, “Shadows on the Wolverine,” is scheduled for publication in 2015. Set in the 1880s,the story was sparked by a report Ivey found of a military expedition into Alaska in 1885. “They ventured up the Copper River, then went over the mountains and traversed the entire state of Alaska,” she said. “I’m telling that story through letters and journals and documents, but the premise, the fun part of it, is that as they travel through Alaska, the myths and legends of the land here are alive and occurring, and they are encountering them as they travel, so they are encountering sort of a mythological Alaska.”
email: firstname.lastname@example.org Eowyn Ivey will participate in a half-hour chat with readers at buffalonews.com starting at 1 p.m. Thursday. Ivey and her publisher, Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, have provided several signed copies of “The Snow Child” to be sent to Buffalo News readers. If you would like a copy of the book, send a letter to Buffalo News Book Club, One News Plaza, Buffalo, NY 14203, or an email to email@example.com. Please explain why you would like a copy, and don’t forget to include your mailing address.