By MIKE DUNHAM
Some 200 people braved blizzard conditions on the Glenn Highway to attend a book release party in Palmer on Feb. 1. It was the originally scheduled publication date for the new Alaska novel, “The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey, the first day customers could find the book on shelves. In theory, no one could have read it yet. But word, clearly, had got out.
“The Snow Child” was listed as a “title to pick up now” in the February edition of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine. It was a “Staff Pick” on the Barnes & Noble website. It made the top of the list of The Christian Science Monitor’s “6 books you should resolve to read in 2012.”
Overseas, where it was released last fall, it had already made best-seller lists in several countries, hitting No. 1 in Norway. A major British bookstore chain, Waterstones, included it among the “Waterstones 11,” the list that has previously included new books that have gone on to win the Man Booker prize and other major literary awards.
Reviews gushed. “Ethereal, bewitching and mysterious” said the Christian Science Monitor. “Ivey’s writing sparkles,” said the New Jersey Star-Ledger, “seductive in its swift, punchy passages of dialogue and its depiction of the ferocious, shimmering wilderness as a vivid character in its own right.”
The publisher, Little, Brown, moved up the publication date and sent the author to book signings in big markets in the Lower 48 in January. By Feb. 12, it ranked No. 8 on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s bestseller list.
But for Ivey, who drove her Toyota Corolla 30 miles from her home in Chikaloon, the enthusiasm of her fellow Alaskans was a show of support that it would be hard to explain to an out-of-stater.
“People came all the way from Anchorage in that weather,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Ivey returned the favor by coming to Anchorage for a talk with fellow writer Andromeda Romano-Lax on Feb. 22. Right after she got back from another book tour — this one to England and Scotland.
Ivey, who turned 39 on Feb. 7, was born in Denver (Coincidentally, the first stop on her recently-concluded Lower 48 tour.) She moved to Alaska when she was 4, grew up in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and graduated from Palmer High School.
Her father, John LeMay, was a carpenter who loved to read. Her mother, Julie, an accountant with a knack for poetry. She also had a love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” in which Eowyn is the name of a formidable female warrior.
“I have a confession to make,” Ivey said. “I have never actually read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its entirety.”
Not many people made the connection while she was growing up, she said. “But when the movie came out, I had people asking me if I’d changed my name to be the character. I was offended.”
Ivey’s husband, Sam, also has a name found in Tolkien’s trilogy. They were high-school sweethearts and attended Western Washington State University in Bellingham together. He became a biologist and now works for the Department of Fish and Game. She earned a degree in journalism and was a reporter and editor for The Frontiersman newspaper after graduation.
“I never really loved newspaper writing like I love fiction,” she said. “But it was a great training ground.”
To allow more time for writing fiction, she got a job at Fireside Books in Palmer, the store that sponsored the Feb. 1 party.
While stocking books one day she stumbled upon a retelling of a Russian folktale, “The Snow Child,” in a children’s paperback version illustrated by Alaska artist Barbara Lavallee.
“I got this funny feeling right then,” she said. “I knew it was what I’d been looking for — a magical story set in a place that could be Alaska.”
The fairy tale concerns a childless couple who make a little snowman, or rather snowgirl, who comes to life.
Ivey had been trying to write a novel for five years. She tucked that project under her bed and went to work on her own retelling of the tale in the form of an adult novel.
“And I think it was worth it,” she said.
In 2006, she showed part of the book to a literary agent at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer.
It was the beginning of a fairy tale ending.
The Iveys live on 20 acres on Fish Lake Road, above the Matanuska River with Castle Mountain in their front yard. They have two daughters, Grace, 12 and Aurora, 4. They’re forever expanding the house while living in it, doing all of the work themselves.
For her family, it’s an Alaska dream come true, said the author.
“We do a lot of outdoors stuff. Hunting, fishing, skiing, ice skating. If you love the outdoors, Alaska is a great place to be.”
It’s a long commute to Palmer, where both Sam and Eowyn work and Aurora goes to school. But the place gives them enough room for a garden. The family also heads for the subsistence fishery on the Copper River every year and puts up salmon.
“We aim for a little bit of that rugged self-sufficiency that’s part of the Alaska lifestyle,” Ivey said.
But with the success of “The Snow Child,” things are a little less rugged. On Valentine’s Day, she and Sam started their week-long tour of Britain, paid for by the English publisher. This fall she’s been invited to the Festival America celebration in France, again at the publisher’s expense.
“I’m going to Paris!” she said. “I’ve never been there before.”
And between those two trips, she may be occupied with trying to take another step toward living-off-the-land self-sufficiency.
“We’re going to build a greenhouse. That’s the next thing on our to-do list,” she said.
“But you know about Alaskans and their to-do lists.”