The book is set in 1920’s Alaska. Jack and Mabel moved to Alaska with the dream of setting up a cosy homestead with just the two of them, away from the constant reminders that they have remained childless. They did have a child once, many years ago, but the child was stillborn and this has haunted Mabel ever since.
Times are hard in Alaska, Jack is not a young man so it’s hard for him to tend the land, and the isolation is not good for Mabel, leading to depression and a feeling of desperation: the book starts with Mabel taking herself off to the frozen river in the hopes of falling through the ice into the blackness below.
One winter night during the first snowfall of the season, Jack and Mabel experience a rare moment of togetherness and have a snowball fight and make a beautiful little snow girl, giving her mittens and a scarf, adorning her with straw for hair and making little pink lips with berry juice. The next morning, the snow girl has disappeared, which wouldn’t be so strange, if the mittens and scarf hadn’t disappeared too.
Then, mysteriously, Jack starts to see a little girl in the forest around their house. He thinks he may be going mad until Mabel sees her too. Now during this time, Mabel and Jack have (unwillingly at first), made friends with their neighbours George and Esther and their children. When Esther hears Mabel talk about this little girl, she thinks she is going crazy with the isolation.
But after a while, Mabel and Jack manage to coax the little girl into their house, and discover that her name is Faina. She’s wild and unpredictable, but seems at one with the forest, never staying for long with Jack and Mabel before she runs off to her forest home.
The story follows Mabel, Jack, Faina and their neighbours over the next 6 years as Faina grows up and gradually becomes a daughter to Mabel and Jack. But each time winter ends and spring comes around, Faina disappears, leaving Mabel heartbroken. Mabel is reminded of an old Russian fairy tale that her father used to read to her. Needless to say this doesn’t have a good ending, and it worries Mabel, even when Faina is around, and especially when it looks like Faina is falling in love with George and Esther’s son Garrett, who has also become a great help on the farm with Jack and Mabel.
The ending of the story was beautiful and tragic, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me cry. It didn’t end quite how I expected it to, but it was a true fairy tale.
As well as being a fabulously well told story, the book portrayed a beautiful picture of the Alaskan wilderness, but also a very realistic picture of the harsh realities of the ice-cold winter and the loneliness and isolation that families in the 1920’s experienced, before they all had cars and modern technology like computers and phones to stay in contact with the rest of the world.
When I reached the end of the book, I was shocked to learn that this was a debut novel, so enthralling and perfectly written to make sure that you just can’t put it down. Definitely recommended!