Sunday, January 17, 2016

Staff Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

I've admitted that I'm not a huge fan of fantasy, so it came as quite a surprise to me that I was captivated (and spooked!) by Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People, an out-and-out ghost story complete with shadowy figures, scuttling creatures in closets, and a bona fide portal through which to call forth the dead (an inadvisable practice).
The Winter People weaves two time-frames together: the very early 1900s and the present day, both narratives unfolding in the same place: the village of West Fall, Vermont, which should be idyllic but is actually totally creepy. In 1908, West Fall farm wife Sara Harrison Shea, in deep mourning over her small daughter's recent death, is brutally murdered and then skinned, a horrific crime that has never been solved.

Fortunately, Sara left behind a journal, which not only chronicles life's (mostly tragic) events but also describes in detail the phenomenon of "the sleepers," dead people allegedly brought back to life, who may haunt the wooded crags near West Fall, particularly the area of outcroppings known as the Devil's Hand. Sara's journal was so sensational that it was published after her death, under the title Visitors from the Other Side.

One hundred years later, the present-day occupants of Sara's old farmhouse, the Washburn family, find themselves swept up in the mystery of Sara's death and the sleepers. This is no coincidence, because the parents had learned of Sara and her journal before moving to Vermont and, in fact, purchased the Shea farmhouse in an attempt to locate missing journal pages that set out the exact steps involved in raising the dead. The Washburns' hope is to cash in on that secret knowledge, for who that has experienced traumatic loss would not pay good money to resurrect a beloved partner or child? This book is populated with people possessed of this desire.

I won't say much more because The Winter People is such a fun, compelling read because of its building suspense: what is real, what is the product of overwrought imagination, what is only a dream? The truth is ever-so-slowly revealed as the narratives move back and forth between the unfolding revelations of Sara's diary and the present-day search by the two Washburn daughters for their mother, who has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. A constant presence in both stories, the Devil's Hand looms dark and terrifying, its rocks, caves, and deep-forest trees shrouding all manner of things that go bump -- or scuttle-scuttle -- in the night. 

~Ann, Adult Services 

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