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How important is a happy ending? Not just in a story, but in life? Is it what we really want?

That's a question Eowyn Ivey addresses in her debut novel, The Snow Child. She uses the fairy tale of a childless couple who make a little girl out of snow one night, only to have it come to life, to delve into the notion of whether people can control their own destinies sufficiently to be happy, and if they try, is it a good idea.

Jack and Mabel lost a newborn child when they lived in the Lower 48. Jack buried the tiny body on their farm. Heartsick, Mabel wondered if they could heal by leaving and trying again. Alaska in the 1920s is brutal but families are trying to eke out a living there. And so they go.

Winter has been as cruel as they had feared. Mabel is so downcast at the endless days while Jack toils, trying to carve farmland out of the harsh wilderness, that she takes a walk across the ice-covered river and hopes to not reach the other side. she does, and makes her way back home.

The couple are having a hard time surviving their hardscrabble life, but there are still sparks of life. And on one night when they are so tired it doesn't matter any more, they play in the snow as if they were children. They even make, not a snowman, but a snow child, and it is beautiful. In the morning, the mittens and hat they placed on the snow child are gone.

Jack thinks he is being watched outside as he works. He thinks he sees a small person out of the corner of his eye. Eventually, a little blond girl appears. Wherever did she come from in this wilderness?

As Jack and Mabel get to know the child, who appears and disappears, and who resists coming into the house, they wonder if they have lost their minds. Their new friends, who are fairly close neighbors, haven't seen the child. Jack won't even acknowledge what they have seen.

It's not just that Mabel and Jack are making choices to seek happiness, they want happiness to win out. Just as they discover the child, they are discovering different things about themselves. Jack is worried that they will soon be starving and he considers going to work in the mine for pennies. At least they have something. When he kills a moose, at least they will have enough to eat through the winter. It is not, however, something that Mabel had apparently thought through before they got to Alaska:

Suddenly she was married to a northern hunter, a woodsman who gutted moose and toasted moonshine in a barn. Everything was topsy-turvy and unfamiliar.
Mabel remembers a book her father often read to her as a child, which has the old fairy tale of a child formed of snow. The ending, of course, as many fairy tales are in their older forms, is not happy. I didn't remember fairy tales as having happy endings, so I evidently read older versions growing up. Cinderella's sisters cut off their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper, Little Red Riding Hood and her granny didn't have a huntsman wander by to cut them out of the wolf's stomach. Hans Christian Andersen broke my heart with just about every story -- the Little Mermaid feels like she is walking on knives, the prince marries someone else and she turns into sea foam; and let's not go into The Steadfast Tin Soldier or The Little Match Girl without a box of tissues handy.

Mabel writes to her sister and asks if she can find the old book and send it to her. Mabel does receive it and is surprised to realize it is written in Russian. She grew up with her father telling her the story as she studied the pictures. In the letter which accompanies the book, her sister relates how she asked how the story ends and concludes:

What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that? Are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?
Whether Mabel and Jack succeed in changing the ending to "happily ever after" isn't what strikes me deepest about this book. It's the idea that if we could choose happiness, wouldn't we? But if we do, what is the cost? Can we control the outcome or is seeking happiness the best that we can do?

This idea was handled in a clumsy manner when Kirk declared that he needs his pain. But does he have a point?

That certainly is the point of a newly released children's novel. Anne Ursu, who paid homage to children's literature classics and coming of age stories in her earlier book, Breadcrumbs, takes on the understandable idea of not wanting your children to hurt or you having to feel pain in her new novel, The Real Boy.

And, to take the idea one further, a world without hurt is what Lois Lowry explores in her remarkable novel, The Giver. The people in this world have lost so much that they don't even see in colors any longer.

Just as children had fairy tales as ways in which to confront peril safely, for children to have books such as these today in which to consider life's questions give me hope. Which, come to think of it, makes me happy.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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