Knopf Doubleday: 2/11/2014
Hardcover, 336 pages
... a simmering literary thriller about ghostly secrets, dark choices, and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters . . . sometimes too unbreakable.West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara's farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara's fate, she discovers that she's not the only person who's desperately looking for someone that they've lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon is a very highly recommended literary ghost story and thriller. McMahon's incredible writing ability easily elevates it above others of this genre.
The dedication gives you the first hint of the creepiness to follow. "For Zella: Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods … 'Sometimes it just happens.'”
The Winter People is set in West Hall, Vermont, where Sara Shea Harrison is legendary, and follows two different time periods in the same house, 1908 and today. In 1908 we meet Sara and Gertie; in the present we meet Ruthie and Katherine.
Sara is famous for her horrific death in 1908, and her diary which reportedly told how to bring the dead back to life - except that the last few pages that shared that information have been missing for years. Rumors abound in the small town how the past is connected to more recent events because over the years people have gone missing and animals have been found slaughtered. People called it the "West Hall Triangle" and blamed "satanic cults, a twisted killer, a door to another dimension, and, of course, aliens." But some of the rumors point back to Sara.
We learn in excerpts from her diary interspersed throughout the book that when she was 9 years old Sara Harrison Shea saw her first sleeper, a loved one who was called back from the dead. It was a girl who had died two weeks before from typhoid fever. The girl's mother followed behind her cautioning young Sara, “Tell no one," adding, "Someday, Sara, maybe you’ll love someone enough to understand.” Sara had heard "rumors of sleepers called back from the land of the dead by grieving husbands and wives, but was certain they only existed in the stories." She later learns from her Auntie that the power is real. Auntie writes the secret down and seals it in an envelope, which young Sara hides.
In 1908 Sara is 31, married to Martin, and has a beloved daughter, Gertie. Much like Sara, Gertie can see beyond what is there. (She tells her mother about a dream where the Blue Dog takes her to see "The Winter People." People who are dead, stuck between here and there, where everything is pale and cold.) In a tragic accident, Gertie dies and Sara is inconsolable. She blames her husband for Gertie's death.
In the present day, 19 year old Ruthie lives off the grid, with limited social connections and no modern technology, in the same house Sara did with her mother, Alice, and 6 year old sister, Fawn. Ruthie breaks her curfew and returns late one night to find her mother missing. Knowing her mother's mistrust of the authorities, Ruthie waits for her return. She and Fawn search the house, looking for clues, and find a copy of Sara's diary as well as other mysterious clues about the past. Also, during the present time Katherine, an artist, moves to West Hall because it is near where her photographer husband died in a car accident and the last place he visited. She is seeking answers and clues to explain why her husband came here.
All the narratives slowly start to converge, but McMahon has added a few neat twists and turns to keep it interesting.
I really love McMahon's writing and have very highly recommended every book of hers that I have read. The Winter People is certainly no exception. I found her writing and characterizations to be flawless. The plot was expertly paced. The tension incrementally builds in both time periods as the questions mount and answers are few. In The Winter People she creates tension and the feeling of horror without a whole lot of gore. The cold winter weather becomes a character too, adding a chilling atmosphere to an already chilling story. McMahon smoothly transitions from one person's voice and time period to the next. All of her characters have depth and individuality.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday via Edelweiss for review purposes.