Book Review – “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleI am a wimp. I don’t like scary things in general – I can’t even watch horror movie commercials without getting freaked out and paranoid that something sinister is hiding in every dark corner of my house. I do like the general spookiness of Halloween-time, but I’ve typically gotten my Halloween fill by watching themed competition shows on Food Network, or from cheesy “scary” movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Occasionally I’ll branch out and watch something fantastic like Suspiria or the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, or read something truly frightening like The Shining, but I typically can’t do modern horror.

That being said, in the past few years I’ve really started to gain interest in more horror-type things, like the old and new TV/movie iterations of It, and, more recently, things that fit into both the horror and mystery camps, like The Winter People. Something about reading a spooky mystery in October really appealed to me this year, so I just went for it. This book is a supernatural horror/mystery about the power of lore, waking the dead, and how far we might go to get back what we’ve loved and lost.

Set in the fictional town of West Hall, Vermont, the story takes place both in 1908 and in the present day. The 1908 storyline centers around Sara Harrison Shea, who has just lost her beloved daughter Gertie and is in the deepest throes of grief. These sections are mostly told through Sara’s diary entries, and in them we learn that she has lived an unlucky life, losing her entire biological, immediate family by the time she’s an adult (except for the one sister who got married and skipped town). She lost her mother at birth and was raised by her father and “Auntie,”  a witchy woman who is famous for doling out remedies to the townspeople who venture out to see her. Auntie lives in a cabin close to a gigantic hand-shaped rock formation dubiously named “The Devil’s Hand,” and she is full of all kinds of innate gifts and knowledge. When Sara is little, Auntie writes down and seals the instructions for how to wake the dead, specifying that Sara should not break the seal until she needs to. Young Sara can’t imagine when she’ll ever need that ability. I think you can imagine when Sara needs that ability.

In present-day West Hall, 19-year-old Ruthie and her 6-ish-year-old sister Fawn live with their mother in Sara’s old house, almost completely off the grid. When their homey, hippie, dependable mom disappears one day, Ruthie and Fawn take it upon themselves to figure out what might have happened to her. In the process, they uncover secrets about their house, their family, and Sara Harrison Shea. Some of the creepiest things happen in and around the house; the girls find lots of hiding places, a secret passageway or two, an ominously boarded-up closet in their mother’s bedroom, and a copy of Sara’s diary, which was published by her niece Amelia after Sara’s untimely and gruesome death. A more minor but still important storyline in the present day involves a woman named Katherine whose husband recently died in a car accident close to The Devil’s Hand. When Katherine finds and reads her husband’s copy of Sara’s diary, she is compelled to move to West Hall to figure out what might have happened to him, and to find out if his death was truly an accident.

There is a barren, eerie atmosphere to this book. Lots of snow, silence, woods. Glimpses of movement in between trees and by The Devil’s Hand. Scrabbling sounds in the closet. The feeling that you’re being watched at all times. A disturbing, off-putting sensation permeates the entire thing, and I had an increasing sense of alarm and confusion as I got closer to the end. This, to me, marks great writing. Experiencing every bump, scratch, and shadow right along with the characters, panicking at the disappearance of little Gertie, feeling a sense of dread at the closed and boarded closet door. Jennifer McMahon’s storytelling pulls you right in.

Maybe I’m just sensitive because my grandparents had a closet in their room that held some weird energy, but the closet thing in particular freaked me out for days. There is one scene with a plate being dragged into the closet, and for some reason it was as vivid, mesmerizing, and horrifying as if I were watching it on a screen. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It didn’t help that I had no idea what the hell was really going on through 75% of the book – that definitely added to the sense of panic, and made the whole plot all the more terrifying. Grade A, chilling stuff. At least to a wimp like me.

But. I was honestly a little disappointed by the ending. Once the truth of the situation was revealed and everything fell into place, nothing was quite as scary as it originally seemed. I guess I didn’t expect all of the mysteries to be solved so succinctly – I expected to be left with some level of unease at the end. As with most mystifying things, once we’ve gotten an explanation, the allure fades a little. The good thing, though, is that the creepiness and chilling beauty of the first three quarters of this book more than make up for the neat ending. I still can’t shake the image of that closet, or what might be scrabbling around in it.

I might be a relative horror literature newbie, but I know good writing when I read it. This is good.

 

Final Impression:  

Well, now I’m afraid of closets.

 

Recommended For:

Horror literature lovers. Anyone who likes eerie, atmospheric books.

 

Book Specifics:

Author: Jennifer McMahon

Publish Date: 2014

Publisher: Anchor Books

Edition: First Anchor Books Edition (2015)

Genre: Fiction

Format: Paperback

Pages: 382

ISBN / ISBN13: 9780804169967

US Price: $15.95

 

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Book Review – “Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Green GablesWhen I was about 13, my grandparents gave me special editions of both Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, the first two books in the series about beloved Canadian wonder Anne Shirley. I watched the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea miniseries endlessly, but for some reason, I never felt the inclination to crack open the copies so thoughtfully purchased for me. The little book duo was eventually relegated to one of my book drawers, and when I moved away from home, I forgot about them completely. Luckily, I’m a nostalgic kind of person, and a few years ago when I was visiting home and reliving my childhood, I came across the books in that wooden drawer, perfectly preserved, with that lovely, papery book smell still intact. Now, 19 years after the gift was given, I’m finally reading them. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Anne is a plucky, charming orphan with plenty of temper to spare, and she spends the book getting into all kinds of mischief. I definitely would have identified with her as a 13-year-old, and would have devoured the entire series.

Set in the early 1900s, the book opens with aging Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (brother and sister, not husband and wife, as I thought for about 75% of the book) setting out to adopt a young boy to help out with the farm and land they live on. Through some miscommunication, they receive a little girl instead, much to shy Matthew’s trepidation and sharp Marilla’s chagrin. The siblings want to trade Anne in for a boy, thinking that she’ll be a nuisance rather than a help, but the positive, whimsical little thing charms Matthew immediately, and eventually wins Marilla over too. And so, after some dramatics, Anne is allowed to stay at Green Gables, where the entirety of the story takes place.

Introspective and incredibly smart, Anne is a child with little upbringing and almost no formal education. Surprisingly, she speaks as well as some highly educated adults, and much better than most of the residents of Avonlea, her flowery sentences starkly contrasting with the clipped, countrified ones of Avonlea’s inhabitants. We don’t get too much explanation about this, but we do get the idea that Anne spent a lot of time reading as a young child. She is also prone to daydreams and finding “scope for imagination” almost everywhere, and we get more hints that this sort of escapism is, at least in part, the result of a troubled past.

Anne purposely doesn’t dwell too much on her life before Green Gables, but we do find out that she was orphaned in infancy, and by age 11 has bounced between something like three homes, raising other women’s broods of children while never being treated like a child herself, or loved, or even paid much attention to, really. Her only friend has been a girl she named “Katie Maurice” who is, quite literally, her own reflection. Which is heartbreaking, but in all honesty, the fact that this poor, neglected girl found her truest friend in herself is maybe not the worst lesson someone could learn…. Anyway, her preoccupation with seemingly frivolous and superficial things like having puffed sleeves on her clothing, or having black hair, or changing her name to Cordelia, belies a need to focus on something lighter than what probably threatens to consume her thoughts – loneliness, neglect, abandonment, and feeling unwanted. It also hints at some self-hatred, probably also borne from her tumultuous childhood. She hates her red hair and her freckles, and even goes so far as dying said hair, with unfortunate results, and asking Marilla to rename her Cordelia. (The ever-practical Marilla of course insists that she regrow her natural hair, and keep her given name, which Anne agrees to, of course with the caveat that “Anne” must be spelled “with an ‘e’”.) This focus on the superficial feels like a defense mechanism, which would have been interesting to see explored a little more. It’s clear that there’s much more to Anne than meets the eye, and the reader is never privy to all of the harsh realities of what made Anne who she is.

Most of the story focuses on her foibles as a young girl, such as when she unwittingly gets her best friend drunk, or accidentally breaks her ankle on a dare, or bakes a cake filled with painkillers. A lot of the story is also consumed by Anne’s disdain for a friendly but mischievous boy named Gilbert Blythe who joking calls her “Carrots” because of her hair. She holds it against him for YEARS. I’m talking a won’t-look-in-his-direction, change-the-subject-when-his-name-comes-up type of grudge. It’s sad and kind of hilarious, mostly because Gilbert clearly adores Anne, but she wants nothing to do with him until they’re teenagers. She learns, far too late in my opinion, that making rash decisions and holding fast to early judgments can alter the course of our lives and reflect our own shortcomings. She eventually befriends Gilbert, and it’s clear that there will be more to that story as the series progresses.

Over time, we witness Anne grow from a small, hot-tempered, dreamy little thing into a quieter, calmer, less hot-tempered, lovely young woman. When we see the person Anne grows into, we see what effect Matthew and Marilla’s care and attention have had on her. Matthew’s indulgence and unadulterated love for the girl has healed her in many ways. Matthew is, to her, a “kindred spirit.” Marilla is strict, to be sure, and has tried – and succeeded – in taming the girl and shaping her into a poised, fiercely intelligent, driven young woman. However, I was bitterly disappointed, to the point of feeling a sense of loss, when I realized that Anne had lost some of her wildness in the midst of growing up. Of course, Anne lived in a different time, and all women were expected to be reasonably mild-mannered, even when it went against their very nature, so I understand the decision to dial Anne’s frivolity back. But I liked her best when she spoke her mind without caring what anyone thought, stumbled into scrape after scrape, and floated into reveries mid-task. Even Marilla laments that her grown Anne isn’t as bubbly or talkative as she used to be, despite the fact that Marilla tried to stamp both the energy and loquaciousness out of Anne at every turn. (I kept thinking, “This is what you wanted, Marilla! This is what you did! And now we all have to suffer!”) But despite the radical change in Anne’s behavior, she is still an engaging and lovable character, and we find that though she has been subdued by custom and age, and touched by loss and heartache (I won’t divulge anything, but I definitely cried), she hasn’t lost all of her spark by the end of it all. I was so taken by the story that I immediately jumped into the sequel upon finishing.

I do have to note that this book is not all sunshine and roses – there are hints of racism in here. Marilla and Anne have a small interchange about the door-to-door salesman who sells Anne some hair dye, a man who Marilla thinks is Italian but Anne says is Jewish. I don’t want to delve too far into it, but it is a blight on the book. This incident forced me to start thinking about (rather than just noticing and moving on) how many mentions there are of “pale” complexions, and how only they seem to be revered and desirable in this fictional little world. Ugh. I hate that so much classic literature is problematic. This kind of thing draws me right out of the story and right back into myself, a self which I know they would have looked at with distrust and maybe hatred if they’d had the chance. But, as we do, I am chalking it up to the time period and ignorance, and choosing to move on. With one eye open, of course.

My next task is to tackle the Netflix series, which I hear is much darker and explores Anne’s past a bit more. We’ll see if I love it as much as I loved the original television series and the books.

 

Recommended For:

Anyone who loved the Canadian Anne of Green Gables TV series from the ‘80s. Any spunky, wild, imaginative kid, or any spunky, wild, imaginative adult who, like me, is still a kid inside. And anyone who, also like me, loves redheads AND their freckles indiscriminately.

 

Book Specifics:

Author: L.M. Montgomery

Publish Date: 1982 (originally pub. 1908)

Publisher: Bantam Books

Edition: Special Collector’s Edition

Format: Paperback

Pages: 314

ISBN / ISBN13: 055321313X / 9780553213133

US Price: $3.99