“Is she real?” is the question the reader asks about the strange, wild little girl at the center of Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child. Faina shows up in the dead of winter at the home of Mabel and Jack, a married couple who are trying, without too much success, to make a go of it as homesteaders in post-World War I Alaska.

Faina lives all by herself in the woods. Her skin is ice pale, her hair so blonde that it’s white. She seems to thrive in cold and snow and can’t tolerate heat; Mabel actually fears she’ll melt if she gets too close to a fire. She appears after Mabel and Jack build a snow child in their yard one whimsical night, and Mabel thinks she’s both a manifestation of her and Jack’s deep longing for a child and a sprite out of a Russian fairy tale. Unwinding alongside the mystery of Faina is the very palpable reality of Alaska. Ivey’s depictions of the state she was born in are literally breathtaking. You feel the snow and cold in your lungs, as if you’ve inhaled the place’s icy air, or spent time crunching through pure white blinding snow that comes up to the knees. Very rarely has the beauty and unyieldingness of nature been described so sensuously.

The reader also cares about Ivey’s characters. Mabel and Jack deserve a measure of happiness, and it would take a hard heart not to adore their salt-of-the-earth neighbors. But wrapped around everything is the enigma of Faina. Who or what is she, really? The answer is just one of the elements that make The Snow Child such a splendid, magical book.

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