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The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People was an intriguing read full of mystery and horror with a supernatural and psychological touch to it. This review will contain some plot spoilers as a general overview, but I will not be spoiling the fate of the characters and some of the bigger secrets discovered throughout the book.

The prologue from Amelia Larkin, niece to the infamous Sara Harrison Shea, who was found dead under gruesome circumstances in the winter of 1908 some weeks after her nine-year-old daughter Gertie had died by presumably falling into a well. Amelia explains the publication of her book, Visitors From the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea, which contains her transcriptions from Sara’s diary entries, although she notes that the very last entries Sara wrote in the hours prior to her death have never been located.

Very early on, the supernatural element is explained in Sara’s first encounter with a “sleeper”: someone who has been brought back to life through a magic ritual and can remain alive for seven days.  Throughout the book, it is revealed sleepers have one main characteristic: a bodily odor akin to the smell of burning fat.

Sara Harrison grew up near the Devil’s Hand, a set of stone structures that eerily look like five fingers reaching up to the sky. Sara’s mother died in childbirth, so she is raised by her father alongside her brother and sister. The closest mother figure she has is a Native American woman known to her as Auntie, who treats her like a daughter and regularly takes her out to collect edible herbs. Auntie foretells Sara’s innate affinity for magic that she will gift to her own daughter (Gertie), and she also provides Sara with written instructions for awakening a sleeper, telling her that she’ll know one day when to use it. The unexplained mystery, mentioned in the point of view of Sara’s husband Martin Shea, are the scattered rumors that still persist in town; of a Native woman who lived in a cabin near the Harrisons, who people went to for herbal cures and love potions, who Sara’s father kept as a bedwarmer, and who eventually disappeared under unknown circumstances. Whether the gossip has any ring of truth, Sara remains mum on them, insisting to Martin that there was never a woman or a cabin. Even more troubling is the frightened reaction Sara has when Martin gifts her a ring he found in the unhabituated land near the Devil’s Hand. She pushes him to put it back where he found it but instead he keeps it. An important piece of this is to know who the original owner of the ring is and how the ring changes hands throughout the past and present. You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly why Sara is so afraid of the ring and the foreboding power she feels it wields over her.

While Sara’s chapters take place in past, the present takes place in the same town, West Hall, and explores the lives of Ruthie, a nineteen-year-old, and Katherine, an artist grieving the recent loss of her husband.

Ruthie seems to have a normal life in a small town; helping her mother sell vegetables and eggs at the market, breaking curfew to hang out with her boyfriend Buzz, and dreaming of going to a bigger city to study business. After returning home in the early hour of the morning to find what appears to be evidence that her mother Alice is already asleep in her own room, Ruthie heads off to bed as well. The dream she has, one which she has had dozens of times before, seems like nothing more than a freaky occurrence, at least at first. In it, she is at a bakery called Fitzgerald’s, where she selects a cupcake with pink icing as she is in the company of a woman wearing tortoiseshell cat’s eye glasses and who calls her “Dove”. It is this dream that later makes Ruthie recall an unpleasant childhood experience of being somewhere cramped and dark with a little girl and later being carried out of the woods by her father. After discovering Alice is actually missing, Ruthie eventually finds a hidden compartment in her mother’s room with a shoebox containing wallets from a Thomas and Bridget O’Rourke. While it might seem Ruthie is grasping at straws over complete strangers having any knowledge about where Alice is, it is plausible as she has no other options since she believes her mother is only missing, not kidnapped. She tracks down their suspected relative Candace in Connecticut and learns the O’Rourkes disappeared sixteen years earlier with their daughter. Without giving away too much, Candace reveals something that causes Ruthie to begin questioning if the recurring dream is more than an illusion conjured up by her psyche.

As for Katherine, she is a woman set on a mission to learn why her husband Gary took a secret trip to West Hall, Vermont in the hours before he died in a car crash. One thing she finds suspicious is his camera bag, which was in the car at the time of the accident, was never recovered. She also finds a copy of Amelia’s book in Gary’s belongings and she becomes drawn to the story within it. Katherine’s amateur sleuthing leads her to the West Hall cafe where Gary was seen with the “egg lady” (as identified by one of the town residents). Her discovery of the egg lady’s identity eventually brings her to Ruthie and Candace, and their group exploration of the Devil’s Hand, with each of them going in for a different reason.

Going back to Sara, her established closeness with Gertie doesn’t seem all that strange, at first. It’s not hard to think that mothers can dote on their daughters and develop a bond built on more than just blood; becoming like two shadows that sleep in the same bed and even creating a secret language together. Such is the case with Sara and Gertie, except how much is too much? Sara’s overprotectiveness over the slightest sign of fatigue or sickness in Gertie to the point she keeps her from school, or her apparent need to always have her daughter with her all the time? I will say here that there does seem to be a psychological reason for why Sara needs Gertie so much, although this was more of a conclusion I theorized once Sara’s history with children comes to light. Again, you will have to read to find out what that is. Sara has a downward spiral after Gertie’s death. Desperation can do a number on someone, and for Sara, being without Gertie meant choosing the one way she could have her back: by the sleeper ritual. How did it all go so wrong in the end for Sara to have died in the horrific way she did, with her body skinned beyond recognition, and Martin claiming Gertie was the one responsible, shortly before he himself committed suicide? 

A note about why I loved this book: I was pleasantly surprised to fall for the “unreliable narrator” trope. There were many things the characters spoke of as facts either because they were lying or because, to their knowledge, they believed them to be factually correct but in actuality, they didn’t know the real truth of the matter until later on. In due time, all the mysteries are tied up by the book’s end. Who (or what) was the little girl that Ruthie remembers seeing? What was in Gary’s camera bag? Are the last pages of Sara’s diary ever found? Where is Alice? What actually happened and what did not?

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