Book Review: Fifty Words for Snow

Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow is a a wonderful tour through language, culture and climate.

Snow Angel…A blizzard of skylarks….Snowflakes big as a dogs pawSnow…

I find snow enchanting, the magical transformation it brings to familiar landscapes, the still silence, especially at night, of a snowfall. I don’t spend as much time as I’d like in the snow (and there will be even less opportunity this year, obviously) . Our son keeps asking if we’ll have a white Christmas – I think probably not, so we’ll have to get our snowy kicks some other way! One way is through wintery reads, and this wonderful book has arrived just in time for winter. I cant resist a snowy book, so I’m delighted to have received a copy to review for this blog tour.

“Fifty Words for Snow” is a marvellous book. Each of the very short chapters takes a snow word and weaves a story around it. Nancy Campbell has taken the ‘list book’ format and made a work encompassing language, culture, history, folklore and belief. Each word a brilliant springboard to more reading. Or in one case, to the websites of Dutch supermarkets late on a Sunday evening, because I needed to know more about Hagelslag (‘chocolate hail’ – Dutch) immediately.

If you’re expecting a dry kind of dictionary or encyclopaedia then this is not it. Each word generates a fascinating essay about it and around it. Years ago I did an anthropology unit as part of my archaeology degree and I became quite obsessed with the Arctic and the lives of the indigenous peoples. Whenever I read anything about cold places I look for the The Inupiaq, who’ve lived in the inhospitable (to us) environment of North West Alaska for thousands of years, and have many words for ice and snow. Here they are, with ‘Tutqiksribvik’“A place with a layer of snow on shore-fast ice, near an ice pressure ridge, where a boat and gear can be stored up side down, and the sides of the boat banked with snow to protect gear under the boat. The bow of the boat is anchored to a piece of ice”.

Tutqiksribviki is a word capturing a whole process and relevant information within itself (I learn here this is called polysynthesis). Campbell expands on this word to discuss the Inupiaq hunter culture, the seasonal cycle of that culture and its spiritual significance. We hear about the umiak (boat) as a symbol of a hunter’s prowess and social standing. An umiak is much more than just a means of transport and they are launched with ritual each spring, an ancient practice in the modern world, but of course the community is of course not isolated from us. They have VHF radios, snow machines, some use motorboats, but “snow and ice are still the working materials of this community“, however, this material may not be as abundant as it once was.

When we think about snow , we must also think about climate change. It is an integral part of the story and covered brilliantly in Fifty Words for Snow. The Inupiaq use mizagluk “water on the ice, often covered by snow” more commonly now. The Nenets people of Siberia, reindeer herders in a warming tundra landscape, must navigate beneath Gazprom pipelines and across roads, as well as almost science fiction level dangers caused by melting permafrost including vibrating earth and huge sink holes. We can track the loss of glaciers through the use of photographs taken in the Rwenzori mountains by Vittorio Sella in 1906; less than half the glaciers are still present only a century or so later. Information on this rapid change to our earth is couched in such a way as to start a conversation, no dry statistics, but a consideration of how it affects not only people of cold places, but us all.

If I had to choose favourites, it would be the chapters recounting folklore and belief. Some of these I knew. The Yuki Onna of Japan, a quite terrifying but beautiful woman born from a snowdrift, and the poor Snowman – much less terrifying – who wishes he could go inside and sit by the glowing fire. New and delightful are the Cherokee story of why the pine keeps it’s needles in winter, and the Maori Huka-rere, one of the children of wind and rain. Magical tales all, just like the snow from which they are born.

Fifty Words for Snow is a wonderful tour through language, culture and climate. A book you could dip into for a quick moment’s reading – I’ve found books like this a godsend in these strange times – or sit down with for a winter afternoon read. It’s beautifully designed, giving off the blue glow of snow in winter light from the frost swirls on cover and endpapers, to the blue type and the captivating microscope images of real snowflakes between each chapter.

As ever I’d suggest you buy your books from a local independent bookseller if you can. There’s also the fab new which supports independent bookshops and is a good alternative to You Know Where, as is Hive.

Nancy Campell’s website is here.

Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliot and Thompson. Thank you to Alison Menzies for sending me a review copy and for organising the blog tour, all the other dates are listed below, do go and check them out!

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