I would wager that Alaska is not the first place one would normally choose for the setting of a complex mystery novel, which is one factor that makes THE BOY IN THE SNOW all the more potentially intriguing. This is the second of British author M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels (following WHITE HEAT). Kiglatuk is a half-Inuit whose usual residence is Ellesmere Island, in remote northern Canada by the Arctic Circle. She has an interesting background --- guide, former polar bear hunter --- that sets her up for involvement in intriguing scenarios, several of which form the backbone of the story. While the elements never quite coalesce into a great novel, it is still a worthwhile read for the meticulous account of the cultures and the resulting clashes that occur in the largest and most unsettled frontier in the United States.
"Perhaps McGrath’s greatest success is her ability to capture Alaska’s unrelenting grimness and beauty, side by side, in a manner and to a degree that few in fiction have been able to do. It is worth reading on that basis alone..."
Kiglatuk is in Alaska for the Iditarod race in support of Sammy, her ex-husband, who is a participant. She finds Anchorage dirty and confining compared to her native environs of Ellesmere, a recurring theme throughout the book, so it’s inevitable that that she frequently wanders during her downtime. While on one such meandering walkabout through a local wilderness, Kiglatuk makes the grisly discovery of the frozen corpse of an infant boy housed inside a tiny structure. A local religious group that is ostracized and to some extent feared by the citizenry is almost immediately blamed for the death.
Kiglatuk is not entirely sure that the rush to judgment is the correct one, and slowly but methodically begins to follow a complex trail that leads to a multitude of sins, large and small, committed by the usual suspects and some unusual ones as well. A great deal of the book hinges on certain diffuse cultural elements that are occasionally difficult to follow, although McGrath is an able guide as she takes her readers through a number of twists and turns to the ultimate culprits, for whom the tragic corpse that Kiglatuk discovered is but one manifestation of a multitude of offenses.
THE BOY IN THE SNOW does not entirely succeed on all levels. Kiglatuk is an interesting character, though she is all but impossible to warm to --- and it’s not only because of the frigid environs. Certainly some of this is due to cultural differences, given her residency in a desolate and dangerous isolated area. What’s undeniable is that McGrath has an uncanny ability to capture the stark grimness and unrelenting beauty that exist side by side in the wilderness of which she writes, as well as the societal differences that uneasily brush shoulders on a daily basis. The Iditarod is but one example. Nearly everyone who will pick up this book has at least heard of it, even if relatively few know what it is, and fewer still are privy to its background.
Perhaps McGrath’s greatest success is her ability to capture Alaska’s unrelenting grimness and beauty, side by side, in a manner and to a degree that few in fiction have been able to do. It is worth reading on that basis alone, even if those seeking a straight mystery story may be mildly disappointed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2013