The impermanence of childhood is a struggle for any parent, but what if the child you love isn't your own? Is it possible to let go of someone that was never yours in the first place?

"The Snow Child," Eowyn Ivey's bewitching debut novel, is inspired by the Russian folk tale about a young girl who materializes from a figure made of snow. In the novel, an older couple, Mabel and Jack, are disillusioned homesteaders from the East Coast who are determined to forge their way in the wilds of 1920s Alaska. Unfortunately, no matter how far they travel, they cannot escape their pain at being childless.

One evening in a rare show of playfulness, Jack and Mabel build a snow girl complete with ruby-red lips, blond hair, mittens and a scarf. The next morning the snow girl is only a small pile of snow and the mittens and scarf are nowhere to be seen. That same day, Jack glimpses a small girl in a blue coat being trailed by a fox. As Jack and Mabel doubt their own sanity, the girl simultaneously brings them together and pulls them apart. Is this girl real, or is she a result of cabin fever? Even if Mabel and Jack cannot be certain, the anticipation of spotting the girl gives them a renewed sense of purpose in the long, dark days and nights of the Alaskan winter.

As it becomes clear that it is a human child who lives in the woods, and not a fairy or a folk tale character, Mabel and Jack set about to tame the girl with human expectations such as regular meals, a bed at night, and school, all to no avail. Faina is like a feral cat, and to tame her would mean losing her. In order to keep the child they consider to be "theirs," Jack and Mabel must give her the freedom that keeps her alive.

Alas, there are few fairy tales that have happy endings, and "The Snow Child' is no exception. As Faina falls prey to the trappings of a "civilized" life -- a home, a child, a husband -- she weakens before their eyes. Here is the ending that we, as readers, have anticipated from the moment she first appeared.

Ivey's intimate knowledge of the Alaskan wilderness -- she was raised there and lives there with her family -- infuses her novel with an intangible beauty. Despite the thick desperation of her characters, Ivey focuses on the bright, yet fleeting light that enters their lives, and as one character urges, chooses "joy over sorrow."

Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.