A man and woman, each past their prime, begin to homestead in the wilderness near the Wolverine River in Alaska. He is the son of a gentleman farmer and lived a soft life. He yearns for the thrill and satisfaction of making his own way in the world.
She is the daughter of a literary professor. Better left to her own company she is uncomfortable around people who force their opinions on her. She lost a baby before it could be born, and is tortured by the children of others. Her childbearing years are behind her.
They were no longer young when they traveled north. Alaska isn’t at all what they thought it would be. It doesn’t give them anything without at first taking their blood and breath. He builds a cabin from peeled logs, and clears the land. He fights with every stump, the roots and rocks. Each year that passes breaks his back a little bit more.
She had imagined that each other is all they would need, and they would work the land together, but he won’t take her to the fields. He tells her she would get hurt, and just be in the way. She spends the months, then passing years inside the cabin cleaning, cooking and mending. Sometimes she reads but mostly she begins to retreat inside of herself, grieving the child that didn’t live and the children they never had.
She almost forgets how it feels to have a light conversation with another person. At supper he eats like a robot and falls into bed exhausted, barely saying anything to her. The dreams they used to share become mere whispers between them.
The desolate gray nothing of a snow-less November grows inside of her. One day she goes to the partially frozen river and walks onto the ice. Deep black water flows swift under a thin layer of ice as clear as glass. From where her boots stand cracks shoot out like the veins on the back of her hands. She prays it breaks, and she falls through and is swept away. But it doesn’t. She goes home and begins making supper like nothing happened.
On a trip into town for supplies he meets another homesteader who says he will bring his sons and help clear their land, and invites them for Thanksgiving. He tells his wife they will go because he needs their help. She is afraid; it has been so long since she spoke to someone else. She considers lying and saying she is sick. But they go and have supper with another couple and their three sons. The little cabin is cluttered and noisy but alive with conversation and life. When they return home she feels a flicker of light inside of her.
Finally, the snow begins to fall. The drifting white flakes shimmer in the air. She surprises him with a display of girlish delight and he joins her when she begins to build a snow man. There is enough snow for only three small balls so she calls it a snow child. She dresses it in a red knit scarf and mittens that were meant for their baby while he carves a face of fine features with his penknife. They stain the lips red with the juice of berries.
The next morning the snow child is a crumbled mound and small booted prints run from the yard – but none come in.
They begin to catch glimpses of a small person peering at them from just inside the tree line. One day the woman sees a little girl with pale hair bent over a red fox. Both run when the woman yells “Wait!” The little girl wears a hat and coat trimmed with ermine, and a red scarf and mittens. Running away she seems to skim across the top of the snow, and she looks back with eyes like blue ice.
This is a story I couldn’t put down. At times, it’s partly creepy, partly fantasy, partly a love story and always dramatic. The husband grows into an honorable and respectful man. He would make a good friend. I feel a kinship with the woman and understand her grief and thoughts of ending her pain. I continue to read, flying over the pages because I have to find out if this little girl is their creation. Is she their snow child come to life? What is she there to teach them? And do they each find solace from their bone deep yearning?
“Magical… As real and mysterious as winter’s first snowflake.” – Boston Globe