The Winter People
Reviewed by Katie Capaldi
The Winter People, by Jennifer McMahon
Like many small towns, and like nearly all early New England settlements, West Hall, Vermont has its legends. These legends, folktales and ghost stories are outnumbered and outdone in exaggeration only by the many rumors surrounding them. The local bookstore lines its shelves with titles to entice passing tourists. Ruthie Washburne's boyfriend, Buzz, and his friends have latched fully onto the alien theory. The oldest residents of West Hall superstitiously leave small offerings of food on their porches every few weeks, to appease the woman who wanders the streets at night. Teenagers run away, fleeing the confines of the hardscrabble, rural life. Hunters succumb to accidents in the woods. Inexperienced climbers meet their ends at The Devil's Hand, an ancient rock formation on the outskirts of town. The circumstances are unfortunate, but nothing more than just that. Or so young Ruthie believes, until the night her over-protective, peace-loving mother goes missing. This is when she first learns of the "Winter People." This is when everything changes.
Suddenly forced into the role of parent to her little sister, Fawn, Ruthie has them both convinced that their mother, Alice, would never willingly abandon them. The girls also know, without question, that involving the police is not an option, as they have been raised with their mother's suspicion of authority. Breaking which seems like the least offensive family rule, the sisters step into the privacy of Alice's bedroom and uncover what becomes the first of many small hidey-holes crafted into the old farmhouse. What they uncover below the loose floorboards will lead them on a haunting journey into the past -- a past which has a tenuous and very real grip on the present.
The seemingly cursed history of West Hall is revealed to the reader just as it is revealed to the characters that populate Jennifer McMahon's gripping novel -- through the pages of a journal kept in 1908, entitled Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea. Sara's story is one of unfathomable loss. As a child she witnesses the death of her dear Auntie, a much feared and respected witch doctor of sorts. Years later, upon marrying Martin Shea as she foresaw from a young age, Sara gives birth to a baby boy, only to suffer his passing before he reaches his first birthday. This event nearly unhinges Sara, steals a piece of her sanity, and tears an irreparable chasm between herself and Martin. Blessedly, little Gertie arrives, and becomes the sun around which both of her parents orbit. But happiness has no place in the Shea's future, and Gertie too is taken from them.
The tale that Sara's diary then weaves is one so unfathomable and so desperate that Ruthie, Fawn, and Katherine, a new resident of White Hall (having moved to the sleepy town to unbury secrets of her own) have no choice but to believe. As these characters are pulled ever deeper into Sara's grief and their quests for their own lost families, the rumors of aliens, spirits and disappearances are brought together and given a new name.
WithThe Winter People, her sixth novel of literary suspense, McMahon has produced her best work to date. She combines a compelling mystery, a diary lost to the fading years, the evil hand of vengeance, and the undying bond between a mother and her children, to bring her readers a ghost story that will chill you with its moral implications. What would you give to see your lost loved ones once more? How closely do we carry the sins of our ancestors? And is there ever a way to go back?