Review: The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

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WOW! Wow! Wow!!

The Story

…the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down….

Elwood Curtis is doing well in life and in school in early 1960’s Tallahassee, Florida, when he hitchhikes to a college class he’s been allowed to enroll in in high school and accidentally changes his destiny. He lands at the Nickel Academy–a Florida reform school for boys that is a special circle of hell.

My Thoughts

Colson Whitehead is one of THE authors of our time whose works are destined to be classics–especially The Underground Railroad, but Nickel Boys, too, will easily make that cut. My reading of this book was influenced by a [white] relative’s time incarcerated in the modern version of a reform school–a rehabilitative community prison for juvenile offenders. While it was nothing like Nickel in terms of the gruesome punishments or the predatory staff, there were still common elements. Like the impossibility of getting a real education. That still lingers in every prison setting.

I have lived in a ruthless African dictatorship and studied the Soviet Union extensively, so none of the torture or violence was a shock to me. I remember Dr. King (he was assassinated on my mother’s birthday) and know that, while it might be arguable that things are not as bad as his day, things are again sliding in the wrong direction in terms of racial discrimination. This book is a good reminder of how bad it was and how bad it must never be again.

The WOW, Wow, Wow, at the start of this post refers to what, “made” the book. To say more would be to totally spoil the story. This “story element” does prove my point about the author being one for the ages though.

The Nickle Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

I listened to the audio version.

My Verdict

4.5

For another fictional look at institutionalized youth in despicable conditions see:

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The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (Author), Yuri Machkasov (Translator)

For nonfiction on our prisons and criminal justice system see:

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American Prison by Shane Bauer

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An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

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Review: Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

My Interest

Over the last several years, I’ve been Reading Across the USA. There are other bloggers who do this, there is a reading the world group on Goodreads (I keep a list of books read by country, too). This year I will finish all 50 states, plus D.C., and Puerto Rico. Most of the time the states have been covered without researching books set there. For the final four states, Wyoming, Delaware, North Dakota, and Nevada, I had to do some research, which led me to my Rhode Island book-The Memory of Running.

Rhode Island

The Story

If this story was set in today’s Rhode Island, Smithson Ide might be mistaken for an INCEL– an involuntarily celibate individual (usually a white male of a certain age) and might be thought to own a MAGA cap. But, we are back before computers and cell phones and before any of those. Growing up in East Providence, RI as part of the Baby Boom generation, Smithy, as his family calls him, was an ordinary boy with a mentally ill older sister. His salvation was a Raleigh three-speed English touring bike. 

After Vietnam and years of going nowhere in his job at the G.I. Joe toy factory, Smithy goes thru a traumatic loss and then a traumatic “find” in a matter of days. Now fat and full of self-loathing he gets on his old Raleigh and changes his life.

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Photo credit

What I Liked

I loved that the Ide family pulled together to keep Bethany with the family and in appropriate treatment at a time in which many such children were institutionalized with no stigma placed on the family. I loved the gentle way in which Smithy and his parents reacted to her episodes of “the voice” telling her to do bad things or sending her into catatonic poses.

I also liked the way Smithy rebuilt himself and “found” Norma, a neighbor he’d grown up with, anew. It was not a sappy sort of “finding,” it was a mature one.

What I Did Not Like

“Did not like” is too strong for my feeling. I did find it necessary to fast-forward through a few places when Smithy was talking to a stranger or two. The stranger of those moments just didn’t hold my interest. These were a minor problem though.

My Verdict

3 Stars

Review: Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

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The Story

Back in the early part of the last century, around 1909, Elinor Rupert was a single mom working as a washer woman. Like many young woman she had found life in the city (Denver) to be harder than life needed to be. She also had a spirit of adventure and so the presence of her young daughter as nothing to stand in the way of that spirit. So, she took out a homestead claim in Wyoming. While working to “prove up” her homestead and gain full title to the land, she worked for a neighbor as a housekeeper and helper.  While doing so she wrote these entertaining and educational letters back to the lady for whom she used to do wash (laundry).

 

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Wyoming

What I Loved

I loved that while allowing that a person’s temperment had a lot to do with things, Elinor believed homesteading to be a much better and, frankly, easier (in spirt and mostly in body) option than the sort of work women had to take in cities to support their children. The lost of washer women, hired girls, cleaners and the like, was very hard. Missing a day’s work almost surely meant missing a day’s wages. I liked her moxie–both in asserting this and seeing women’s work for the drudgery it was and often still is.

What Bothererd Me

Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House fame, was seen as a self-taught “natural” with a pen, when in fact her daughter Rose edited, re-wrote or coaxed from her mother most of the prose. I was left thinking–wow, for someone with no formal education, no real teaching she certainly came away able to write very, very well. In a day when libraries were just starting to take hold, she must have really gotten her hands on a lot of fine books to get such a consistent voice to her writing. I was especially perplexed when her young daughter (admittedly very young) wrote a letter and used incorrect grammar and the like freely. I admire the educator Charlotte Mason, so I want to believe all her reading let Elinor write so beautifully, but I have to suspect an editor was heavily involved. Like the Little House books, though, the “back story” of the writing really doesn’t matter that much. The stories are perfectly told in the letters.

I also found it odd that she neglected to mention a couple of important life changes–one of which tempered my view of her as a lone woman homesteader [no spoilers!]. My mind was soothed some by her complete determination to learn and master all the skills necessary and to do all of the labor for proving up her homestead. This she truley did.

My Verdict

If you enjoyed the Little House books, you will also enjoy this book very much. You can read more about the author, Elinor Pruitt Rupert Stewart in this article from the Wyoming State Historical Society.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

I listened to the audio version.

 

If you enjoy this era of history then try this book as well:

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This book is a MARVEL! What an unexpected gem of a book! I loved every word of it. Society girls, sick of the round of parties and good works while waiting for husbands to arrive on the scene take a bold step and change lives. Like modern day Peace Corps Volunteers they journeyed to a remote part of early-20th Century Colorado to teach school. Just read this one–you won’t regret it. A definite possibility for my “Must Read Book of the Year.” Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. (9/27/2011 from my old blog).

 

Review: Girlchild: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman

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What Attracted Me To The Book

I rarely browse the library shelves–wood or electronic, but the other day I needed an audiobook for my long commute and none of the audios I’d requested were in. I had also recently noticed that my list of books by state was missing Nevada. I saw this cover, read the blurb about a girl in a dysfunctional life in Nevada who learns from the Girl Scout Handbook, and knew I’d found a gem. For the record, I taught myself to make a bed properly, with hospital corners, from my own Girl Scout Handbook that I still own.

 

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The Story

Rory Dean Hendrix, born ten years after me in 1972, is growing up as the “Feeble minded daughter of a feeble minded mother,” growing up on the Callie, a trailer park, in Reno, Nevada, with a mother who serves at the truck stop bar or lives off the county, depending on the moment.  Hers is a story teachers and social workers alike can recite all too well. It is the white, rural story told in The Hillbilly Elegy and currently labeled systemic, multigenerational  poverty. Never enough of anything–food, attention, oversight, even when the parent genuinely loves the child, which isn’t a given. Abuse is common.

What I Loved

I loved the “anthropological” aspects of the story best–the commentary on the manners and mores of the trailer park. Those who still have cigarettes when the welfare check and food stamps run out will share with those going without. At a funeral, the bottle opener will be tied to a string on one of the ice chests. Have refreshment first, even if you don’t pass out. Funerals are often a time for rites of passage for teenagers–loss of %irgin!ty or first drink are common.

Then there are the word problems: If a pickup truck being driven thru the [trailer park] by a man at .02% under the legal limit…show all your work (paraphrase). These are the most illuminating passages in the book. Superb.

“No making college plans when you can’t make breakfast plans.” (Girlchild)

Finally, there is the moment in elementary school when avid-reader Rory defies the odds and shows “promise,” and represents her school in the spelling bee. I ached for her. This is a scene I see all the time in my first generation college students and in my own kids’ high school friends. She cannot believe she earns this so screws it up. The teachers and administrators then forget about her, nodding their heads.  I was pleased that the librarian was a defender of Rory’s, but wich the author had spared us all the predictable librarian cliches even though they were meant to be cliches.

Final Thoughts

This book is a masterpiece of social commentary. A class on systemic poverty in rural America could use this and The Hillbilly Elegy and pretty much cover it all. Through in Nickled and Dimed in AmericaHeartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth and a playlist of hardluck Country Western songs.

I listened to the audio version of this book beautifully read by the author.

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Girlchild: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman

If you enjoy this type story

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As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me by Nanci Kincaid

 

Review: We Fed An Island by Jose Andres

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“You should never feel guilty about feeling ambitious when you are trying to help other people. If you don’t dream then reality never changes.”

The Story

After hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, chef Jose Andres and others got together to feed the people of the islands while FEMA, the Red Cross and others dithered and followed standard operating procedures that left people hungry, homeless and without hope. Military MREs were given out but were barely edible.

“A plate of food is not just a few ingredients cooked and served together. It is a story of who you are, the source of your pride, the foundation of your family and community. Cooking isn’t just nourishing, it’s empowering.”

As he tells his story, Andres tells of other disasters and how groups responded to the crisis. He documents the many times that President Trump’s TWEETS were nowhere near the reality and times when the President seemingly intentionally mislead the American people on the effort in Puerto Rico. He shows how ridiculous much of the response process is, how much over-spending and under-delivering is involved and how impractical many solutions are. Then he explains how he re-wrote the rule book on feeding people after a disaster.

“The group seemed to like my energy, but that was about it….They looked at me like I was a smart ass with some crazy vision of saving the world.”

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My Thoughts

Having seen the foreign aid process first hand–the graft and corruption that eats up much of it, I know he is telling the truth. Having researched charities and the amount per dollar that actually reaches the intended “target” versus what is spent on staff, offices, transportation, etc., I know he is telling the truth.  FEMA, a name now reviled after Hurricane Katrina, gets more well-deserved criticism. STOP–standarad operating procedures really can mean STOP or stopped.

Having visited Puerto Rico, worked with educators and educational administrators there back in the early 90s, and having an uncle with a home on Vieques, I know everything he said about the kindness and generostiy of the Puerto Rican people is true. The communities pulling together is exactly what happens there.

Sadly, the legislative history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States (Puerto Ricans ARE U.S. Citizens) was very dull even to me, a former law librarian who enjoys researching things like that.

As a librarian and historian, I loved seeing how social media is capturing history in the making. Andres made excellent use of it in documenting the story.

Some Things I Learned

I did not expect to hear the Southern Baptist Convention praised in this book! I had no idea that they provide fully staffed mobile kitchens to help in Red Cross disaster relief efforts. That was fascinating.

I may have misunderstood–I was, after all, listening while driving on my daily commute, but I did not know that the Red Cross spends only what is donated for that cause–not it’s millions in general. That shocked me. I know they are ridiculously wealthy, have horrendously high overhead, but I had thought they used the money on hand for each disaster. I knew they were a virtual government agency, but I really didn’t know the full extent of that. I had long ago stopped donating to them, but this reinforces my decision.

Regret

Why or why didn’t he include recipes!

P.S.

Jose? Please find a different word for focus. I loved your accent but I heard a very different word in your accent! (laughing)

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An Extraordinary Author Produces a Very Ordinary Book

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After reading the fabulous Snow Child, I fell in love with Eowyn Ivey and wanted to immediately read everything she’d written only to find out it was one of the most fabulous debut novels in ages. So, when I heard that her second novel was now out I rushed to read it. See if this sounds like me:

  • Older man, younger woman couple
  • Historical setting
  • Military  men are involved
  • Epistolary format with diary entries and letters
  • Natural history and nature study
  • Museum and archive work involved

It should have been a perfect fit with my reading tastes. Except….except….except…. It wasn’t. Well, for starters, aspirin is given and it wasn’t on the market yet. Yeah. But the aspirin thing is not a big part of the story–it’s just a sign of an editor not doing one of the jobs they were supposed to do–fact checking.

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The Story

The good stuff

Allen and Sophie Forrester are a happily and newly married Army couple. He is colonel given the task of scouting and exploring the Wolverine (i.e. the Copper) River in Alaska. The story of the expedition is mostly very compelling. This author is a very gifted storyteller.I really liked that part of the story. I also enjoyed, for the most part, the modern day story of the Great-Nephew donating Colonel Forresters diaries to a small museum in Alaska. I enjoy anything to do with first-hand account of histories and diaries are a huge part of that. Archives and museums a are favorite of mine.

I really enjoyed the ending of Allen and Sophie’s story. It reminded me very much of Hoosier author Gene Stratton Porter’s life and work.

 

See the maps from the book–and of the real journey that inspired the story.

 

So what bugged me?

In a word: Sophie. I’ve never met a character so vapid, yet able to hold some really modern views. I will say that Sophie say she got slightly more tolerable after she took up photography. Maybe she was boring because she was bored and stupid because her life was stupid and without purpose not that dear Allen was away.Maybe the raven took the stupid out of her and flew away with it? It was  a relief that she grew to more than she was in the beginning.

The whole story of the raven was just too much for me in both Sophie’s part of the story and in the story of the expedition. But it wasn’t badly told. It’s just not my thing. I’m not into animals becoming people or the spirit world–too much fantasy, but that is just a matter of reading preference, not a criticism of how it was written.

Then there was  pet peeve with so much fiction today–diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity hammered into the story with one of those big mallets with which the coyote used to try to kill the roadrunner. Beep-Beep. Why in the world the museum guy’s sexuality needed to be introduced is beyond me. Naturally the great-nephew who donates the Colonels diaries is a elderly Trump-sort who has an epiphany and repents of his wish that everyone would just shut up about sex and sexuality. Hammering something like this into a story where it has no place bugs me no end!

Now, don’t misunderstand. Had Colonel Forrester been gay–that WOULD have added to the story. If Sophie had fallen in love with the hired girl over their shared passion for photography that would have been an interesting way to get the subject into the story. But this little exchange was just trite and silly. It sounded like a PC-mandate for publication. Both turned into pompous windbags for a while so I started to tune them out. Thankfully I payed attention again and caught the wonderful ending to their story.

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Another element was tiresome and beaten over the head like the proverbial dead horse. That was the now seemingly-mandatory-for-publication disparaging of the Christian faith or church attendance or praying. Sophie has no regard for church or for the Christian faith, though her mother was a part of the social justice-minded Quakers. Nor does her “hired girl,” though in her case it is more understandable. She’s an apparently lapsed Irish Catholic with a large number of siblings due to her mother being a faithful Catholic. (And, what woman of any faith at that time had much of a choice over how many kids they had to bear?) It’s not so likely, though,  for a proper young school teacher of the 1880s as Sophie was. After all, teachers had morals written into their contracts even in the early 20th Century. It really didn’t matter to me if this fit the characters or not–its just so utterly predictable in today’s fiction.

And, just as naturally, the one missionary who is a blip of a sound byte in the story was unfaithful to his wife and many children with a “native woman.” And the poor wife proclaims that their prayers must not have been good enough…right. The Colonel wasn’t much for religion either, but did have the dead guy laid out in  the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, had it been a Baptist Church you can bet he’d have skipped it.This just seemed ridiculous in places.

Finally, there was my biggest pet peeve  with so much of historical fiction today–characters holding too many modern views. At the time of the Colonel’s expedition, the country was currently fighting with various Native American Tribes. Hence the term, whether it is right or wrong,  “Indian Wars.” Wounded Knee had yet to occur. The Trail of Tears was simply a government edict.  There was remarkably little sympathy for the Native Americans or for Native Alaskans in the 19th Century. The “enlightened view” of the day was to “civilize” them by sending them off to government schools for indoctrination. As much as we would like to re-write history, we cannot. What was done to the Tribes and Alaskan Natives is a terrible injustice worthy of war crimes trials and we should and must hang our heads in shame. But it wasn’t seen that way back then.You just can’t change that, no matter how desirable it would be to do so.

 

The Verdict

3 stars. The story should have been fabulous, but it just wasn’t.  It is simply an average book hyped and spun to seem fabulous because the The Snow Child was an extraordinary achievement. I want to hope that the author was pushed hard to get a second book out as soon as possible. Happily most readers won’t notice the things I found objectionable–they are more about the state of historical fiction today.

In spite of the problems I had with this one, I still love the Snow Child and I’m still anxiously looking forward to more books from Eowyn Ivey.

 

 

To The Bright Edge of the World: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey

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Reading Across the USA: Florida

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As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me came to mind the minute I stepped out of the AC and onto the back porch this morning. I wilted just taking the few steps over to the car!

Nanci Kincaid’s book tells the story of an lackluster parenting, small town living, an unlikely friend for a 13-year old girl and HEAT. Soul-sucking, swampy, Florida heat in a neighborhood with no air conditioning. The star of the book, 13 year old Berry, is in that time between tomboy-hood and woman-hood. The heat prickles, her parents and brothers rankle and then the chain gang arrives…

Pick this one up–it’s well worth it. You’ll want to pour yourself a quart jar of iced tea first. It won’t disappoint. Don’t be surprised though if you find yourself sweating profusely even with the AC on full blast. The setting is just that vivid.

As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me by Nanci Kincaid.

This post was originally published July 25, 2016 under a different title.

Reading Across the USA: West Virginia

 

 

 

We’re heading back to West Virginia today! Last week I reviewed a great memoir–Dimestore by Lee Smith (read it here)–that reflects more traditional life in state born in the Civil War. Today we’re looking at a sliver of life in the top echelon of the state in the 1950s–Keith Millard’s extraordinary novel, Gloria.

I devoured this book when it came out for a simple reason–it was so much my Mom’s story. Like my mom (Purdue ’57), Gloria Cotter, was sent off to college to be “finished” and expected to marry an up-and-coming career man. In the parlance of the day she was to earn her “Mrs. Degree” cum laude. The novel features Gloria’s final summer at home she endures the country club world of the small West Virginia steel town dominated by her parents’ “set.” She’d like graduate school, but there’s a suitable prospect at hand for marriage. Which will it be?

This is the generation who went crazy at home in the suburbs and raised the banner of Women’s Liberation. After reading this novel of that time and its claustrophobic atmosphere (funny just how many reviews use that word!) it’s easy to see why. Maillard perfectly captures the lack of oxygen in a young women’s life in that set and in that era. As I read, I could feel my stockings start to bag, my girdle pinch and I began to wonder if I’d ever get the Club waitress’s attention to have her discreetly bring me a second Tom Collins so I could endure what Mr. Bank Vice President was droning on about while the son of my Dad’s golf buddy tried to instigate a round of footsy with me under the table.

This is one women’s novel not to be missed. Book Clubs will devour it even now. I have recommended it far and wide over the years. While it is, sadly, out-of-print, it is still readily available used (buy the paperback–the hardback is getting ridiculous prices) and in many libraries.  I wish it would come out on Kindle. Perfect Book Club book.

Gloria by Keith Maillard

Reading Across the USA: Georgia

Bailey White, a long-time NPR commentator, is best known for her funny short stories about the folks in her family and in her small Georgia hometown. My personal favorite is Computer School–an essay featured in her collection Sleeping at the Starlite Motel. For the state of Georgia today I’ve chosen her novel, Quite a Year for Plums.

Roger, a local peanut pathologist and Della, a local bird artist trying to save an endangered breed of chickens, are the main folks in this story. But small town life is about everyone and this book has a wide-ranging and eccentric cast of characters–just like you’d find in a Bailey White essay.  You can read the New York Times review here.

What matters most to reading this story is the hear the author’s real voice. It’s combination of southern magnolias, sweet tea and…well, gravel. Once you catch the sound of her voice, her writing is electric. Take a listen to this NPR story:

Reading Across American–Alaska: The Snow Child–Novel and Fairy Tale

The Novel

Last Friday I posted in the Friday 56 with a few lines from The Snow Child.  You can read that post here. Today it’s time for my review.

“I don’t want to be warm and safe–I want to live.”

I understood the child’s reluctance to come inside, to be warm and safe…and controlled. While the point of this story was not to discuss the emotional struggles of older adopted children, that one line summed it up beautifully. I no longer write about my children–they are both adults now–but this line could have been uttered by one of them. Today I understand it. Back then, not so much as they say now.

Mabel and Jack fulfill a long-time fantasy of mine, to homestead in Alaska. Fantasy for me due to the hard work and, today, the cost of living in Alaska, but it’s always held a strong appeal to me. I’m an introvert and quite happy alone–most of the time. While Jack was made of the stern stuff necessary to homesteading, Mable wasn’t….or so it seemed. It seemed too that Cabin Fever had taken root over a long, dark winter. Or did it….?

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Esther and George and their three boys live nearby. Esther keeps a friendly eye on Mabel and her youngest son becomes a sort of nephew to Jack and Mabel. But none of them have seen the mysterious girl that Jack and Mabel say has visited them–a girl with a pet fox. A girl who lives alone in the vast wilderness. Garrett is Esther and George’s youngest son. Overshadowed by two older brothers, he finds peace and sanctuary in the wilderness.

[Photo is of the scenery that was used in the book as being around the fictional Wolverine River–photo from Letters From Alaska, the author’s blog]

Mabel has a beautiful story book from childhood–a story written in Russian that tells of an elderly couple who long for a child. They make one out of snow. Is this girl their Snow Child?  Can the heat of love and the warmth and safety of home stifle, even “melt” a person?

This is an amazing well-written book, with a story as amazing as the land in which it is set. There is hunting and trapping in this story as is normal in such a setting, but could upset some people not familiar with the life. I enjoyed the many amazing descriptions of nature–of the vastness of Alaska. Mabel’s nature drawings and her descriptions of the scenes written to her sister back East will entice nature study enthusiasts to read this book. The sweetness in this book is the right kind–not cloying, never precious. Book clubs will love this too for the theme of infertility, of motherhood and marriage and how both change lives. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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Did you know that The Snow Child was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013?

For more on Alaska and the locations in this book and in Eowyn Ivey’s new book, visit her blog, Letters from Alaska.

The Fairy Tale

Here are a few picture book versions of the fable of The Snow Child  to share with children or just to enjoy on your own.

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The Snow Child by Freya Littledale

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Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome

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The Snow Child retold by Harriet Ziefert

Here is the very lovely book trailer for The Snow Child