Title: The Winter People
Author: Jennifer McMahon
Pub. Date: February 11, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, Doubleday!!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Horror
The story of a little girl named Gertie who died.
Whose mother loved her too much to let her go.
So she brought her back.
One of the first reviews ever posted on the blog (back in August, 2011!) was Don’t Breathe a Word, a deliciously creepy novel about the disappearance of a little girl who went off to marry the King of the Fairies and never returned home. That novel was my introduction to Jennifer McMahon and has stuck with me ever since, a perfect combination of horror and reality and how blurred the lines separating them really are.
Two years later I’ve got another McMahon novel under my belt and I’m itching for a third (and fourth and fifth…). Going off the two I’ve read so far it’s clear McMahon has something of a formula, a recipe of sorts, that she uses when writing. Don’t Breath a Word had a cop-out ending that I didn’t care for at all – the final destination made the entire journey feel a bit worthless – and was a little worried the same would hold true for The Winter People. Despite my worries, I jumped right in and discovered a novel even better than the first.
She remembered her parents’ warnings when she was little: Stay out of the woods. Bad things happen to little girls who get lost out there.
The first thing you should know about me: I love dual time periods in novels. I live and breathe multiple eras so right off the bat The Winter People was looking good. The second thing you should know about me: the more character perspectives there are, the happier I am. The Winter People had a huge cast of characters, and the story played out over many of their points of view. Giddy from the get-go, I only came to love this book more and more the further I read.
An old farmhouse in West Hall, Vermont holds its share of secrets (some, literally). In the late 1800s, Sara Harrison grew up in the house with her siblings, father, and Auntie. Auntie’s strange and otherworldly beliefs ostracized her from the rest of the townsfolk, yet when they needed a surefire way to win the eye of someone or needed a remedy the doctor couldn’t provide, she was the person to go to. While growing up, Sara had heard whispers of sleepers, those returned from the grave, and on one occasion saw a classmate in the woods not long after having attended her funeral.
Now grown and with a child of her own, Sara Harrison Shea still lives in her childhood home. Unfortunately Gertie is in a terrible accident and her untimely death is too much for Sara to handle. As she sinks deeper and deeper into depression (or, as her husband and brother-in-law believe, madness) she faithfully pens her diary, filling it with knowledge Auntie had passed down.
Since then, multiple families have come and gone, and now Alice and her two daughters reside in the old farmhouse. As far back as the girls can remember, Alice has made it clear they are never to go into the woods, especially not the Devil’s Hand as the locals call it, and if anyone should ever knock on the door they are never to open it. Never. Alice’s sudden disappearance one morning sends the girls on a manhunt through states and decades as they discover hidden diary entries and realize the town’s legends might be real after all.
The Winter People had me thoroughly creeped out in the middle of the afternoon! I think that’s a pretty good testament to McMahon’s skill as a writer, don’t you? Broad daylight with the sun shining through my windows and there I was, jumping at every sound. More than once I steered clear of the closets, fulling expecting to be greeted by a sleeper. This novel is very much a winter read and not just because of the title. There’s a stark coldness that’s ever-present, and a resounding sadness that left me thinking in shades of blue and grey. Death is also a key theme and the novel explores the lengths some people would go to in order to see a loved one for one more day – or, in this case, one more week.
It’s been a while since a novel has captivated me from beginning to end, but The Winter People did just that. In one case I was reading well into the night (not my best decision!) simply because I could not put the book down. I came to know and care for these characters: Ruthie and her little sister Fawn; Katherine and her anguish over the loss of both her husband and son; Sara with her sorrow and excitement. Despite the number of characters and eras, McMahon wove the story together flawlessly.
Again, however, the ending loses a bit of its magic. Ruthie doesn’t so much make a decision as accept what’s thrown upon her. While it does leave room for a possible sequel, I had hoped for more. Despite that minor bump I absolutely loved The Winter People and highly recommend it. If you’re in the mood for a quick and compelling novel that will keep you guessing, this is it.