The Winter People
It's been a seriously long winter for a lot of people in the U.S. About the only thing that makes a winter like this one bearable is the prospect of curling up under the comforter with a good book, the kind of story that can make you forget about icy sidewalks and towering snow banks for a while. Jennifer McMahon's THE WINTER PEOPLE is exactly that sort of book. Set in Vermont (a place that knows a little bit about winter), her latest novel is a ghost story that brings together past and present in particularly ominous ways.
The book opens with an extended excerpt from the 1908 diary of Sara Harrison Shea, a Vermont woman whose family farm abuts a supposedly haunted wood and a spooky stone formation known as the Devil's Hand. Sara is married to Martin and is the mother of Gertie. Gertie's birth was hard-won, coming after a series of lost babies, and Martin worries that Sara is a little too close to Gertie. When the six-year-old dies tragically, Sara becomes unhinged and --- as readers learn from the introduction to her published diary --- dies under violent and mysterious circumstances only weeks after Gertie's death.
"Every bit as riveting as the best suspense novels, THE WINTER PEOPLE also keeps readers wondering if everything will be explained away…or if spirits really do haunt the north Vermont woods."
Thanks to the publication of her diary, the story of Sara Harrison Shea is well known in West Hall, Vermont. But in a winter just as cold and dismal as the one that saw the deaths of Gertie and Sara more than a century before, mysterious happenings have begun again. Ruthie and her younger sister, Fawn --- who, as it turns out, live in the old Shea farmhouse --- grow alarmed when their mother disappears without a trace. They become even more alarmed when they discover what she has left behind. Meanwhile, newcomer Katherine has come to town to investigate the near-simultaneous disappearance of her husband, a photographer who claimed to have been shooting a wedding near Boston but, in fact, had been last seen in West Hall. The connection between these two stories --- and with the missing pages from Sara’s diary --- is surprising and more than a little terrifying.
A really good ghost story builds suspense by causing the reader to question what elements of the tale can be explained rationally and what elements, if any, are truly supernatural. THE WINTER PEOPLE does exactly that as it alternates between the present day's mysteries and the account of what happened to the Shea family during that winter of 1908.
Every bit as riveting as the best suspense novels, THE WINTER PEOPLE also keeps readers wondering if everything will be explained away…or if spirits really do haunt the north Vermont woods. At the same time, the book is thematically rich, exploring the lengths to which grieving people, especially parents, will go as they desperately try to will their lost ones back to life. The novel suggests that this powerful longing, this near-hopeless anguish, unites people of all times and places --- and leads to the darkest capabilities of the human heart.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 21, 2014