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Alaska author Eowyn Ivey's debut novel 'The Snow Child' captivating the world

Ben Anderson
Stephen Nowers photo

Palmer resident Eowyn Ivey is about to make a big splash in the literary world, as her debut novel “The Snow Child” prepares for its U.S. release. The novel has already become a No. 1 bestseller in Norway and has been gaining advance praise across the English-speaking world.

“The Snow Child” takes its inspiration from a fairy tale about a child borne from snow. In this modern, adult retelling, the story centers on Jack and Mabel, a pair of hearty homesteaders in 1920s Alaska, recent transplants from the Northeast United States. Past childbearing years and with a failed pregnancy behind her, Mabel pushed to move to the territory and start a hard life, in a small cabin and attempting to farm the land.

In a rare fit of frivolity, one winter night the couple builds a snowman -- or a snowgirl, to be more precise. They give her a scarf and gloves, and Mabel squeezes the juice from frozen berries on her lips to give them a pink blush.

The next day, their snow child is gone, a single set of footprints leading away from the destroyed sculpture.

Soon after, a girl appears from the woods and begins to flit in and out of their lives. Jack and Mabel wonder if she is their unspoken wish for a child, fulfilled in the flesh. The novel centers on the question of whether or not this snow child is real or just a hopeful figment of the couple’s joint imagination as they attempt to start a new life in a hard place.

Ivey, a former reporter for the Mat-Su Frontiersman newspaper and now a bookseller at Palmer’s Fireside Books, had spent five years working on another novel, her first. Then, one winter evening while stocking the shelves at Fireside, a title caught her eye.

It was a version of “Snegurochka,” a Russian Fairy tale that tells of a childless elderly couple who make a child out of snow and see her come to life.

“I’d never seen it before,” Ivey said of the slender volume, illustrated by Alaska artist Barbara Lavallee. “I read a lot and come across a lot of books, so I was surprised I’d never read this book before.”

So she paused, standing in the aisle, reading the short tale. As she read, she became excited with the book and its possibilities.

“I just had this rush of adrenaline,” she said. “I can’t even describe the feeling -- it was like nothing I’d ever felt before.”

That rush of adrenaline was the result of a lightning bolt of inspiration for the book.  She began researching the fairy tale, and its numerous versions over the years, the myriad tellings and retellings, even a play based on one of the versions. So, Ivey said, she “threw away” her first novel and began work on a new book with “Snegurochka” as inspiration.

She wrote for a year, and by the end, had completed a first draft of “The Snow Child.” Now, the book is gathering major must-read praise from national publications, and has already become a bestseller in Norway prior to its official Feb. 1 release in the United States.

Then, while attending the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference, her mother convinced her to talk to a literary agent, Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, about her manuscript.

“It was a total flukey kind of thing,” Ivey said. “I was there with not intention of pitching the book, which is weird because a lot of authors go there intending to pitch or sell their books.”

After a conversation with Kleinman, he asked to see the first hundred pages of the manuscript -- a manuscript Ivey hadn’t brought with her. One frantic call to her husband back in Palmer -- and 100 pages faxed from the local library -- later, Kleinman offered to represent Ivey and “The Snow Child.”

An elderly couple’s longing

Ivey said that the fairy tale foundation -- a version of which plays a role in the actual book -- allowed her to be playful.

“It was actually really fun to interact with the fairy tales,” Ivey said. “I sort of enjoyed being able to reveal some of the possible endings and the things the fairy tale provided.”

And while the book might be based on a children’s tale, there’s nothing immature about “The Snow Child.” The more magical elements lend a mystic, weighty quality to the text. Mabel and Jack’s longing for the child they never had, and their attempts to restrain themselves from becoming too attached to the flighty child who overheats when she comes indoors and vanishes in the summertime, speak volumes about unfulfilled dreams and the substitutes people make to replace them.

Save for a shopkeeper and a nearby homesteading family, the pair are relatively isolated, which lends itself to the Alaska setting and Jack and Mabel’s ongoing worries that perhaps they’re merely suffering from “cabin fever” when they see the child. It allows their world to seem more plausible.

Ivey said the timeframe of the story was the result of the idea not working in the modern world.

“I’ve had a few people label it as historical fiction,” she said. “This is going to sound really bad -- I’m not overly interested in history. Really, it was the practicalities of the story I wanted to be told that dictated the setting. Pickup trucks and TVs didn’t give me the right experience that I wanted.”

Ivey lives with her husband and two children in Palmer, and they hunt and grow their own vegetables, chop wood and keep chickens, “living out,” as she calls it.

“Of course, we also eat pizza,” she jokes. “It’s really not that uncommon in Alaska, the way we live.”

Ivey’s own self-sustaining lifestyle lent credibility to the experiences of Jack and Mabel and their hardscrabble life in the early days of the Last American Frontier, and became a focal point of the novel for many Outside.

Ivey said she was surprised by the number of people who latched onto that Alaska way of life as the most captivating part of the book.

“I think it’s just something that’s my natural tendency as a writer, the stuff I love to write the most,” Ivey said of her experience in the outdoors and hunting and fishing in Alaska. “I feel like we all have things we know a little more about, and appreciate a little bit more than others might.”

Still, she said, “I didn’t anticipate what other people would find interesting about it. People are so fascinated by Alaska.”

Ivey’s descriptions of the flora and fauna of Alaska are rich and came naturally for her. The book is full of scenes from the Alaska outdoors, deep valleys with glacier-cold streams cutting through them, snow drifting against a lonely cabin, cottonwood falling like snow in the height of summer, the air thick with pollen. The way the air creeps slowly inside during a cold snap, draining the life from a room. Literarily, Ivey is to the natural world of the Far North what Charles Frazier has been to the South.

Positive Press

The rollout for “The Snow Child” has been unorthodox. As a bookseller, Ivey said, the way the book has been released -- and the success it has enjoyed even prior to its debut in the English-speaking world -- has flown in the face of her conceptions of book releases.

“Everything about this process has been completely contrary to what I thought I knew about publishing,” Ivey said.

The book has already been released in Italy, France, Germany and Spain, and has become a No. 1 bestseller in Norway. Oddly, although the origins of the book are in a Russian fairy tale, Ivey hasn’t heard from anyone in Russia looking to release the book there.

On Wednesday, the book will see its official debut in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and Ivey said she’s grown quite exhausted because of all the interviews she’s been doing. Also in February, she’ll head to the UK for another tour. She’s already done interviews with the BBC, the Irish Times, and The Bookseller in London.

The book is already available for purchase in many locations across the U.S., since the release dates have been staggered already elsewhere in the world. People from around the country have been ordering the novel from Fireside Books, hoping to purchase their copy from the author’s home bookstore.

The book’s pre-release publicity has also been extremely positive, with The Christian Science Monitor naming the book number one on its “6 books you should resolve to read in 2012,” and one of “10 Titles to Pick Up Now” in the February edition of Oprah magazine.

What’s next for Ivey? She was awarded a 2011 Rasmuson Grant to travel down the Copper River as research for another novel, and she’s already completed that trip. In the meantime, she’s working on promotional articles and essays for “The Snow Child” for national and international outlets.

Does she ever plan to write stories set outside of Alaska?

“I’ve been asked that,” she said, “but I honestly can’t really imagine writing about anywhere else. This is the place that I know the best and that I love.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com