Núria Tamarit’s “Daughters of Snow and Cinders” is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about a woman who travels from Southern Europe to North America in search of fortune.
Tamarit is an author and illustrator based in Valencia, Spain. “Daughters of Snow and Cinders” was translated into English by Jenna Allen and was recently published by Seattle-based Fantagraphics.
Partly inspired by her love for her own dog, Tamarit has written an original fable with a supernatural being and a nonspecific time and place. Animals are essential to the story. A powerful female wolf represents nature. Characters hunt moose, rabbits and salmon. A wolf-like dog is one character’s close companion, while a falcon is employed as a weapon.
While some graphic novels tell a complete story in black and white, color is intrinsic to Tamarit’s storytelling. Her illustrations start with pencil drawings; then, she adds color digitally. Dramatic shifts in the sky from gray to red signal the appearance of a supernatural beast. Flashbacks of a sunny childhood farm contrast with the dark tones of the boreal forest.
The book’s Spanish title is “Loba Boreal,” or “Northern She-Wolf.” “Boreal” is another name for a forest in the Northern Hemisphere. “Daughters of Snow and Cinders” depicts the environmental destruction in Northern American forests that started when Europeans arrived to seek their fortunes. Violence against Indigenous people was common.
When the novel begins, we see glimpses of a beautiful wolf with dark fur moving through a forest. Tamarit’s painterly illustrations change abruptly from shades of green and black to the lurid red of a skinned wolf carcass on the forest floor. The hideous image of a slaughtered wolf is the reader’s introduction to the violence and cruelty in Tamarit’s story.
As suggested in the title, “Daughters of Snow and Cinders” tells a story from the perspective of women. The main characters Joanna and Tala meet on a gold-panning expedition. In search of fortune, Joanna joined the expedition after traveling from southern Europe, possibly Spain. Tala is an Indigenous woman who was forced to join the expedition as a guide.
Both young women have survival skills and are comfortable in nature. Joanna barters with furs she brought from home. “I butchered this black fox myself. It’s from the Old Continent,” she explains. Tala is renowned for knowing the land better than anyone else in the region.
Joanna’s homeland is seen in a series of flashbacks of warm, lush and bountiful land, but there was also violence. Joanna has traveled thousands of miles because soldiers murdered her family and burned down their farm. “No one lived in my realm any more. There was nothing and no one there now,” she says. She wants to find gold so she can return to rebuild her family’s home.
The men in the story are mostly portrayed as cruel, while Joanna and Tala are kind and mutually supportive. Throughout the story, women and animals are beaten and maimed by male characters. However, at the simplest level, Joanna and the violent men on the expedition have the same goal: They want to extract gold from the landscape and return before they freeze to death in the wilderness.
The difference between Joanna and the villainous men in the story is that she is receptive to learning and changing. In the end, she decides that the price of getting rich is too high. “It was a bad idea to come here. All I want to do is return home with my pockets full or empty,” she explains. She chooses not to warp her values and lose herself in the pursuit of gold.
While the story is sympathetic to Indigenous characters, Tamarit tells the story through the lens of a European. It would be fascinating to know the backstories of the Indigenous characters in this novel and learn their perspectives on the tragic consequences of European expeditions and settlements.
Overall, “Daughters of Snow and Cinders” is a satisfying read. Tamarit’s illustrations bring the story to life in a way that written descriptions could not match. The storytelling is suspenseful. We root for Joanna and Tala as they face dangers throughout the novel. As they decide to take only what they need to survive, these characters represent the possibility of a respectful attitude toward nature, which is ultimately the only path forward for us all.
Jennifer Astion is a contributing writer.
Read more of the July 5-11, 2023 issue.