I always connect to well-written characters, but every once in a while the experience surprises me.
Take for instance Mabel, the main character of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It’s 1919, and she’s so destroyed by her tragic struggle to become a mother, so tortured by seeing her sisters with their own babies, she convinces her husband to relocate from their secure Pennsylvania home to hack out a solitary life in Alaska.
This woman is nothing like me. I successfully (and gratefully) became a mother. I would never homestead in the Arctic. I wouldn’t even live in a slightly less-than-ideal neighborhood let alone the stark uncaring wilderness. Yesterday, I went on a Brownie troupe hike on the “fairy house trail” in a forest so close to the road you could see the cars go by. Still, I had moments when I envisioned some apex predator bounding through the trees to take us all down.
Plus, obviously, I’m a living breathing human being and this Mabel is just a name on a piece of paper.
This woman and me, we’ve got nothing to connect us.
By page 7, however, I was with this woman. I was completely empathetic with her pain. She was contemplating suicide and I needed to know what was going to happen. In her pain, I caught my own reflection. She was so crushed with disappointment, stunned and destroyed by how far her life was from what she thought it would be. I know what that tastes like. Don’t we all, at least in some small way?
This is why I love reading so much.
Mabel stands on the thin ice between life and suicide, and lives—almost by accident. Her life chugs bleakly onward but does arrive somewhere new and she’s surprised to feel joy again. (Lucky for me I know what that tastes like too.) The story reminded me that whatever feels bleak in my life might also melt away.
Books like this are the perfect example of why I think fiction has the potential to make us better people. Not just “Great Literature,” either. This isn’t Toni Morrison (not even Bob Dylan), but I contend the connection I made to these characters oils the gears that enable me to connect with people I find strange in my real world. And who's kidding who, nearly everybody is strange. Take gun nuts and Trump supporters. Just thinking about some of the Trump's supporters and their anti-Semitic tweets is enough to whip me into such an angry lather. And I'm aware that I'm strange too--my dream of melting every last gun and all the ammo is extreme for even people who want stricter gun control. I look at some women (Melania) and wonder at how we are even the same species, our world views are clearly so different. Then I think of Mabel. If i can care about Mabel, i guess I can take pity on Trump's troglodytes, live in a country with more guns than people*, and even maybe somehow see myself in Melania.
The more pliant our compassion, the more likely we might find a way to connect. While it’s tempting to resist connection, especially with the Trump supporters, compassion can transcend anger and self-righteous disgust. (This might be easier on November 9.)
If nothing else, who can resist some good old frontier nuttiness, and this book has lots of it. Characters take maybe one bath a year, eat moose for dinner, see only five other people, and a little girl kills a swan with her own hands. Wait ‘til you see what she does with the feathers.
This book is really a fairy tale turned into a novel. In some ways it’s a frosty take on Latin America’s magical realism. The snow child appears one day and even though they both see her, neither Mabel nor her husband Jack are sure she’s real. Neither are we, for a while. But the snow child keeps coming back—as long as it’s cold enough, that is—and her mysterious presence transforms everyone in the story.
Does foregoing quotation marks give an author license to ignore all the commonly accepted laws of physics and fiction? One could take issue with the liberties Ivey takes in imposing some semblance of reality on a fairy tale. But I decided not to. She did perhaps smudge the lines on the fairy snow child, but her rendering of Mabel and Jack’s marriage is as precise as crystal. So much goes unsaid between them it could drive you nuts, just like a real marriage.
My final endorsement for The Snow Child? I read it in a week. Take THAT Middlemarch.