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386 pages, Hardcover
First published February 1, 2012
"Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?"
"Was that why they had come north— to build a life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply sift away in the wind."Jack and Mabel are an aging couple who left their old life and moved to Alaska seemingly to start a homestead but really to escape the weight of their loss that, turns out, they were not able to leave behind with their old lives. More than anything, Mabel desired to have a child, defining herself through the view of motherhood - but all she and Jack have is the memory of a tiny deformed stillborn, the one that Mabel hasn't even had a chance to say goodbye to as Jack (with the best intentions, sadly) quickly took it away for a silent nighttime burial.
"Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence."But little has changed in the new place - the sadness that rules their lives, enveloped in silence and things-not-quite-said refused to be left behind. And here they are, in Alaska, still grieving, still drifting apart, Mabel suicidal in her depression, Jack preoccupied with simply trying to provide sustenance to his family, and things have never looked bleaker for the two of them.
"Was that why they had come north — to build a life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply sift away in the wind."These parts of quiet desperation in which Jack and Mabel existed - because at this point it was mere existence and not quite life - were the parts that emotionally connected with me. There is that elusive *something* in the pervasive melancholy superimposed onto the landscape beautiful but cold and severe that touches the soul and pulls on the heartstrings, and even though you know that it's calculated to precisely do just that to your poor vulnerable heartstrings you cannot help but feeling for this miserable couple deeply and sincerely.
"If you said you didn’t have children, it sounded like a choice, and what kind of craziness would that be? If you said you couldn’t, the conversation turned awkward while they contemplated your manliness or your wife’s health."And then, just as everything seems to be hopeless, the Snow Child appears - a strange and ethereal Faina, a little girl who appears on the night Jack and Mabel in a giddy trance make a snow sculpture in their yard, a child who only is seen in winter and seems one with the snow-covered stern world of Alaska. To Mabel, something about her reminds of a Russian children's story about a snow maiden that graced the lives of an old childless couple; and as far as Mabel remembers, the story does not have a happy ending.
Mabel's Snow Maiden is very familiar to any Russian child. Snegurochka, a tragic young maiden made of snow, doomed to demise by the fire/spring/love in the many versions of the fairytale (beautifully depicted by the famous painter Vasnetsov below), who through the last couple of centuries came to fill the role of the granddaughter of Father Frost, the ubiquitous presence at any kindergarten New Year's Day party, the inspiration for the many children's New Year's outfits (see baby Nataliya below as a very special snowflake/Snegurochka):
"But he knelt at her feet, put his head in her lap, and they held each other and shared the sorrow of an old man and an old woman who have lost their only child."
As the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.
As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.
But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer - on the frozen seas.
But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.
“No warm blood in me doth glow,
Water in my veins doth flow;
Yet I’ll laugh and sing and play
By frosty night and frosty day–
Little daughter of the Snow.
“But whenever I do know
That you love me little, then
I shall melt away again.
Back into the sky I’ll go–
Little daughter of the Snow.”
- An extract from Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome.
You can read the short story here.