This short excerpt “Snow” from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a relatable piece particularly for students with ties to Latin America. I have taught this passage in Costa Rica, where many people who’d like to visit the US for one particular reason: to see snow.

“Snow” appears in this collection (full of other great short fiction).

“Snow” is an excerpt from Julia Alvarez’s novel.

In “Snow,” the main character, Yolanda, experiences many other new elements of her Stateside environment — the nuns wearing habits, new English words that roll around in her mouth, the political situation between Russia and the United States.

The short excerpt is useful for practicing close reading and examining how details and images create a depth of meaning. Yolanda doesn’t address directly what she’s feeling, in the way that many of us can’t really articulate the meaning of something at the time it’s happening, especially as children. But here we see a rich example of how details and images communicate a character’s experience and direct us in our interpretation of the text.

First Sentence: Annotating Important Details

Let’s start with just the first sentence and see how much we can interpret just from those few words.

Our first year in New York we rented a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look peculiar, like dolls in mourning.

Teacher Note: You could use this first sentence analysis as a whole-class modeling on the board. I would ask students to spend just a minute or two circling or underlining character, setting, other important details they notice and then discuss/model together.

What details about character, setting, or other important images do you notice?

What do you know about the story, and what do you predict based on the first sentence? Underline or circle important details. Do this task before moving on.

Here are some of the details I underlined:

  • Character: Our: probably a family. They moved to New York. Sisters of Charity: probably nuns
  • Character descriptions: hefty: the women seem sturdy; long black gowns: seem kind of etherial, soft but mysterious; peculiar: curiosity by narrator, strangeness of new setting and people; like dolls in mourning: not sure at this point, innocent and yet serious, caring
  • Setting: New York, small apartment, Catholic school

First Paragraph: Annotating to Understand Character’s Feeling

Now, continue with the first paragraph, underlining or circling important details about characters, setting, or other important themes.

As we read, we learn the narrator is the only immigrant in her class, and that she likes Sister Zoe, who compliments Yolanda’s name and who Yolanda describes as grandmotherly. Yolanda is treated as special, with her special seat. The seat is apart from the other children.

When I read that, I wonder if Yolanda feels isolated or different; but in combination with the friendliness with which Sister Zoe is portrayed, it seems to me that Yolanda feels special because she’s different, and not strange because she’s different.

However, her different-ness is emphasized in the paragraph, as well as a theme of learning language — pointing out each particular word that sounds new and strange. The words (laundromat, cornflakes, subway, snow) are all probably new objects in her New York environment that were important.

Any other important details you underlined in this first paragraph? Take time to reflect on them or share with others here.

Continuing Annotation: Noticing Trends and Themes

Continue (in a classroom setting you can do this in groups) annotating (underlining, circling, writing reactions) in each paragraph. (Students could work in groups.)

What are some of the important details or images you noted? Take a few minutes to take stock or share with others now.

As you look back over the piece, what are some main themes or motifs (patterns) you see developing? Review and make a bulleted list of some possibilities.

Here are some things I notice.

In the second paragraph, I see details about major world events and cities. Look at how many cities are mentioned: Cuba, Russian missiles, New York City. And world actors: President Kennedy, Communists. Even “world peace” is mentioned. She has an awareness of the whole world, and these big imagined nations acting. But those big imagined actors and the idea of “holocaust” gets inside the school and home, too: Sister Zoe draws the image of the mushroom cloud on the board and the children imagine and rehearse what might happen, and at home as they say the rosary. The imagined threat is in the language she’s learning: nuclear bomb, radioactive fallout, etc, and thus inside of her mouth, her speaking. I feel here the fear (we end the paragraph with the dusty fallout that would kill us all!) but it’s all kind of far away and imagined, too, as big world events often are, as the children imagine their hair falling out and bones going soft, which is almost play-like, something children might play and imagine within the safety of pretend. There’s an uncertainty and confusion of learning new language and learning about these horrible things that might happen in the world — fear and uncertainty and childlike imagination all intertwined.

I see a theme of imagination continuing in the next paragraph — daydreaming out the window, the darkness. Something else she’d “heard about” “all [her] life” appears. What seems frightening “Bomb!” becomes something lighthearted, soft and amazing. But it seems there’s still that confusion — what is imagined and real, what is threatening or a soft like “fine powder dust.” It’s a funny scene, but we can also identify with that confusion a child might feel in the world — sorting out these big world-level threats, a new country, school and home, new language, new environment. I love how all these elements are so intertwined: the listing of the new words, the naming of all the actors and places on the world stage, the comfort and “ballooning” skirt of sister Zoe, the rosary, the dark and cold but also wonder of the snow.

Reflection on Themes

The last sentence of a piece like this can help direct what we make of it all. So read over it: What do you think we take away? You can start with — is this positive or negative?

Sister Zoe leaves Yolanda with a meaningful message: each person like a snowflake “irreplaceable and beautiful.” For me, this leaves us — even through all the fear and uncertainty — with the comfort and valuing that Yolanda found in Sister Zoe. The ending connects back to the beginning when Sister Zoe valued Yolanda so much, calling her name “lovely” and teaching the class to pronounce each important syllable: Yo-lan-da. Despite her feeling of strangeness, the horrible threats of the world, scary new experiences and words, Yolanda has this comfort and guidance in Sister Zoe’s words, the support in imagining and being mistaken and also loved. The passage is so eerie, and I feel Yolanda’s uncertainty and struggles, but in the end she is supported, reassured, and guided.

What other images and themes stand out for you? Take a minute to look back over this piece — so many great images and phrases. What are some of your favorite phrases and moments?