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REVIEW: The Boy in the Snow by M.J. McGrath

boy in the snowThe Boy in the Snow
M.J. McGrath

Review by Laura Lee Baas

Reaching out with the utmost caution, [Edie] clasped the body at the shoulders with her mittened hands and slowly turned the boy over. His face was veiled with ice, the eyes were closed and he wore an expression of softness and calm. He looked so waxen, so distant from life, that, for the tiniest instant, Edie convinced herself he was a doll even as she knew that she was looking at a corpse.

I’ve always had a fascination with places that experience extreme cold. It may be because I was born and have always lived in a subtropical climate and that real cold and drifting snow are a completely unknown quantity for me. Two of my favorite books as a child were The Call of the Wild and Julie of the Wolves. I couldn’t get enough of books about cold places, although my subtropical upbringing has resulted in complete acclimation to heat—anything under 80 degrees Fahrenheit makes me reach for a jacket.

The Boy in the Snow begins with a sledding accident during the Alaskan Iditarod, moves on to the discovery of a baby’s body, and does not let up the pace from there. Despite the quick pacing, McGrath does not skimp on character development, letting us into the inner world of the protagonist, Edie Kiglatuk, a mixed-blood Inuit/Caucasian. It’s Edie who discovers the baby, and while this would be disturbing to anyone, it obsesses her. This is the second book featuring Edie, and while I felt slightly off-kilter at first, I don’t think I missed too much in not having read the first.

Edie is a resourceful protagonist, and her determination to uncover the murderer when a second dead child turns up is pure adrenaline-fueled entertainment. The authorities in Anchorage appear content to snatch up a convenient suspect, but Edie gets her hands on a misplaced police badge and starts looking for answers.

Edie may be mixed blood Inuit, but McGrath does not fall into any typical pitfalls that I could discern. My father is mixed blood Cherokee, so I am a bit sensitive on this topic—anyone who is full or mixed blood has had someone tell you about their great-great grandmother, an “Indian Princess.” It’s always a female ancestor of course, and I’ll never forget the guy who, after asking about my heritage, mentioned he had Native blood as well. When I asked what tribe, he didn’t know. He also didn’t know which relative it was, and no family member had ever mentioned a Native ancestor. I asked how he was so sure he had any Native blood; he responded, “I can just feel it.” Um, yeah.

Edie is certainly not a princess, nor does McGrath make her or any tribal members follow the trope of the Noble Savage. That Edie is intent on justice for the child whose body she found is not due to her native blood. Her former stepson died, and it’s clear she blames herself somehow. Another character intent on finding the real murderer is caucasian (qalunaat to Edie), and he and Edie manage to help one another. Inuit words, such as “qalunaat,” are included throughout the book but always introduced with a quick initial definition so non-speakers will understand.

Another trope McGrath avoids is the Native-as-Nature-Mystic. Edie has survival skills in spades, but this is due to spending her life up to the present in a small community near the Arctic Circle. Knowing how to track, build snow shelters, dress meat—these are just things you do and no more remarkable in her world than driving a car to buy groceries in mine.

In point of fact, Edie’s discovery of the child’s body stems from her getting lost in the woods. She is used to living in a tiny village surrounded by tundra where she can see in every direction. In dense forest, she can get lost like anyone.

McGrath also does not shrink from two of the worst Native issues—alcoholism and racism. Edie does not directly mention alcoholism for most of the book, but it’s clear early on this is one of the big, ugly monsters in her past, as well as her ex-husband’s. No one calls her names (to her face), but the undercurrent of not quite being trusted because she isn’t white is ever present.

What I do wonder about is if Canadians/Alaskans do use the metaphors that are scattered throughout the book, such as “her movements were about as lively as a dead seal’s” or “her head hurt like a group toothache in a walrus pod.” Or do they cringe like I do when someone tries to “play southern” by saying things like “yesiree bob-tail” whenever they get a chance? As I mentioned, I’m pretty sensitive to the stereotypes mentioned above but not very familiar with Inuit culture, so I can’t speak for them.

A plot point that came across as odd and probably unnecessary is that, when the identities of two of the baddies are revealed, it’s also revealed that they are gay. This is just kind of tossed out and had absolutely no relevance for me in relation to the overall story. I’m just not sure why the only two gay characters whose names the reader will remember also have to be the murderers. It made me a tad uncomfortable is all I’m saying.

The metaphors are a bit jarring and sometimes the pacing is so fast it feels rushed, but it’s an interesting read in a setting that comes with unusual challenges.

Borrow It: It’s an interesting way to spend a couple of afternoons, and you’ll learn some things you may not know about survival in the cold—but it’s probably not a book you’ll want to have at hand to read again and again.

The Boy in the Snow
M.J. McGrath
Viking Adult
$25.95 (Hardcover), 384 Pages

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