“The Snow Child” tells the story of an older couple who, desperate for a child, may have wished one into existence. While living deep in the cold, dark, and isolation of frontier Alaska in the 1920s, a girl begins to appear to them, apparently from her home in the woods. As the girl grows older and closer to her adopted family, the couple begin to wonder at her imperviousness to the cold, her astounding ability to survive, and her summer migration to the mountains.
An air of gentle mystery pervades the novel, and all the characters are faced with the fact that other human beings, like nature, are out of their control. To those living in the depths of the wilderness at the mercy of the unknowable forces of the elements, a snow child like Faina seems far from impossible.
As in any frontier society, survival demands that gender roles flex and adapt. All three of the women characters in the novel perform hard physical labor to survive the winter. Ivey depicts a world where life is so precariousness that traditional femininity is not only useless but is actively harmful to both women and men.
Faina is a girl who does more than flex gender roles; she ignores them completely. The girl lives outside the established norms of society, and repeatedly refuses to allow human civilization to change her. It is made repeatedly clear that, if forced to choose between her parent’s home and her home in the wilderness, Faina would vanish forever into the forest. Her parents even wonder and sometimes believe that she cannot exist outside her snowy home, that without a connection to the cold and the wild she would die.
As the novel progresses, Faina is drawn deeper and deeper into the realm of women and men. Love and hope draw slowly takes over her life, brings her to live permanently in a house. But Ivey’s world is one in which flexibility can only go so far. Faina cannot survive in a warm house of wood forever; like a wild thing, she belongs in the wilderness.