A couple struggling to settle in the Alaskan wilderness is heartened by the arrival of the child of their dreams—or are they literally dreaming her?
Jack and Mabel, the protagonists of Ivey’s assured debut, are a couple in their early 50s who take advantage of cheap land to build a homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. But the work is backbreaking, the winters are brutally cold and their isolation only reminds them of their childlessness. There’s a glimmer of sunshine, however, in the presence of a mysterious girl who lurks near their cabin. Though she’s initially skittish, in time she becomes a fixture in the couple's lives. Ivey takes her time in clarifying whether or not the girl, Faina, is real or not, and there are good reasons to believe she’s a figment of Jack and Mabel’s imaginations: She’s a conveniently helpful good-luck charm for them in their search for food, none of their neighbors seem to have seen the girl and she can’t help but remind Mabel of fairy tales she heard in her youth about a snow child. The mystery of Faina’s provenance, along with the way she brightens the couple’s lives, gives the novel’s early chapters a slightly magical-realist cast. Yet as Faina’s identity grows clearer, the narrative also becomes a more earthbound portrait of the Alaskan wilderness and a study of the hard work involved in building a family. Ivey’s style is spare and straightforward, in keeping with the novel’s setting, and she offers enough granular detail about hunting and farming to avoid familiar pieties about the Last Frontier. The book’s tone throughout has a lovely push and pull—Alaska’s punishing landscape and rough-hewn residents pitted against Faina’s charmed appearances—and the ending is both surprising and earned.
A fine first novel that enlivens familiar themes of parenthood and battles against nature.