We have a hard time with death. We all know we’re going to die, from the moment of self-awareness to the moment when we breathe our last breath. In Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel, The Winter People, she takes West Hall, Vermont, and uses it to set the stage for a grieving process, with splashes of ghost story and mystery that suck the reader in and evacuate all of the breathable oxygen. Entertaining and lifelike, Winter People will leave you wanting more, and reflecting on your own pattern for dealing with grief.
In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea journals about the strange events surrounding the death of her daughter, Gertie, concerning her husband and those in the town around their isolated home in the woods. In the present day, Ruthie Washburne’s mother disappears, and she searches for answers, aware of the legend of Sara and the way that the community has insulated itself. Several other stories intersect with Sara’s story, and with Ruthie’s, but McMahon weaves the narrative in a way that it jumps from 1908 to the present and back, and from perspective to perspective, without losing us, but drawing us in deeper.
As a fan of both Stephen King and John Connolly, I found myself admiring McMahon’s ability to blend the spiritual with the tangible, the threat of evil with the power of community. Whether you get to the end of one of those novels and recognize that it is in fact real people doing real evil, or spiritual forces of evil doing evil, it doesn’t matter: good has to stand up against it. The multifaceted way with which McMahon spins the story, we’re kept unbalanced, not sure how to feel about these people or who exactly is the “good” until deep into the narrative.
Ultimately though, McMahon has spun a story that asks us to consider how we deal with loss, especially the loss of a child. What are our coping mechanisms? Are we inundated with platitudes, stupid things that people say, like “God just needed another angel?” Or are we moving forward, just merely surviving, one foot in the front of the other? Do we believe that there is something better that we can hold onto, some hope of seeing those we’ve lost again, in a better place, an eternal life?
I hold to those beliefs, that Jesus’ death on the cross frees us to an eternal life. But I also believe that life starts now. I don’t think that secondary life matters as much if we don’t grasp love in the here and now, if we don’t truly live. McMahon’s book, in its own way, wrestles with what happens when our grief becomes our life, when we don’t learn to really live, and what we attempt to hold onto instead becomes a death sentence, an evil unto itself.
In the end, The Winter People isn’t a book that has let go of me yet, but instead still lingers, like a shadow, asking me how I deal, and how I grow as a person. It’s a wonderful, mysterious tale, that bears reading, and reflecting on, when it comes to life.