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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Dead of Up North Winter: Survival and Escape

January driving conditions
[There is a book review in the second section of this post. Anyone eager to cut to the chase can scroll quickly through my description of the farmhouse in winter and get to the book review further on.]

Waking in the dark is an escape from snow-shoveling dreams.

"It's getting dangerous for us to live here in winter," he tells me, and reluctantly, against my will, I begin to agree. I don't want to understand him, but I do. Falling doesn't count, though. One can fall as easily in town or city as in the country. A daughter-in-law's fall on black ice in her dentist's parking lot resulted in a compound fracture, but here in the country, our paths are like animal trails, and we keep to them when we venture forth from our burrow, so if we fall, it's onto snowbanks, not pavement.

The landscape is a blur....
We haven't lived here all our lives, but just the same, the way I see it, we are the old kind of country people. For one thing, our old farmhouse hides behind a hill instead of ruling from on high. Giving up an expansive view, our house has gained in privacy, but the wind finds us all the same, sweeping down the back of the hill, drifting our paths closed, sifting fine snow between door and sill to fan across the porch floor, and when our truck gets stuck or won't start, or when the drive drifts closed again after the plow has opened a lane for us through walls of snow, like old country people we stay home. Most of our living takes place in one central room -- eating meals, reading books, drinking tea, writing letters, darning socks, and listening to the radio. "This is how old Joe and his wife spent the winter," he tells me. Except that they had cows to milk and hogs to slop and chickens to feed. We don't. But there's plenty of physical exertion to be had, with all the snow. No need to lament being unable to get to a gym when one lives in the old country way.

Bills this winter are going to be crushing. That's where winter really hits hardest: fuel bills and plow bills. So we close doors and shrink our footprint, and piles of projects tower and spread, filling the smaller living space until we are like mice in a nest, snug in excelsior. In the morning dark, to rescue me from endless dreams of snow (day's repetition extended through the night), the dog comes to the side of the bed, wanting up, and I pat the covers to issue the invitation she awaits. New country people have queen- or king-sized beds in spacious bedrooms with enormous windows looking out and down onto water or vineyards. Our small, cold, crowded farmhouse bedroom holds an old-fashioned double bed, and three is a crowd in that bed, but it's comforting, too.

The wind will always batter this corner of the world, as far into any future I can imagine, but we're here now. Wind and snow and cold and isolation haven't done us in yet. We're here now. That's my mantra: We're here now.

Wind sweeps down the hills....
Darning socks by lamplight is a calming domestic task. Mug of hot tea close at hand and dog at my feet, I feel connected to previous generations of women who survived harsh Michigan winters, survival an important concept during stormy days and nights. But sometimes the concept with more appeal is escape! So where is that ARC that arrived in the mail in December? Ah, here!

The Collector of Dying Breaths, by M. J. Rose
NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014
On sale April 8, 2014

This is total escape! Complete, riveting fantasy! Once again, mythologist Jac L' Étoile, daughter of an American mother and French father and heiress to a famed house of Parisian perfumes, is plunged into a whirlwind of mysterious history (16th-century Italy and France this time around) and present danger. Once again she yearns to connect with the man she has always loved but is held back by fear for his happiness and safety. The visions she experiences -- are they memories of past lives or evidence of a brain malfunction? Either way, concern for Griffin North gives her pause, since in all her visions of a past concerning a man who seems like Griffin and a woman she seemed to be, she was responsible for his death!

Now. Here's where I confess that I am not usually a reader of fantasy, apart from Wind in the Willows and Palmer Brown's The Silver Nutmeg, and that romance-suspense is not a genre I generally find appealing, either. And there's more. Belief in reincarnation, religious or otherwise, has no hold on me, and I can become downright irritable when subjected to talk of "past lives." So how does M. J. Rose do it? How does she pull me in time after time? This is the sixth novel in a series, and I've read three of them, which is an extraordinary record, given the subject matter and my reading preferences. How to explain it?

One aspect of these stories often mentioned by reviewers is their wealth of sense detail. Rose's descriptions involve not only the sense of sight but also, tellingly, the senses of smell and touch, much less frequently utilized by fiction writers. Aromas and textures draw readers into Jac's world, and we are so grateful for the sumptuous sensory banquet that we accept all kinds of literary excess. In The Collector of Dying Breaths, for example, the character of Melinoe Cypros, in her old castle outside Barbizon, France, is completely over the top, a kind of cartoonish Cruella DeVilla on the page, with her long tunics and pounds of jewelry and white wings of hair. Everything about her spells DANGER in huge, flashing lights, and it is incomprehensible that Jac will go forward with Melinoe's crazy project! And yet she does -- and we follow with bated breath!

Another, very clever way Rose keeps us hooked in is with Jac's own reluctance to buy into reincarnation. Throughout the series the protagonist moves between flat-out, hard-headed, rational skepticism (rationality always emphasized) and weakening resistance to the temptation of belief. Jac's doubts allow a doubting reader to accompany her on journeys that we skeptics would otherwise have no interest in taking.

So that's life Up North these days, during a brutal Michigan winter. It's a kaleidoscope of adventure and retreat, comfort and hardship, survival and escape. Thank you for joining me in my world today.

Our parking area when the sun came out four days ago....


Kathy in Oz said...

Pamela, I woke up thinking all my usual thoughts for this time of year: I can't take any more of this hot, dry weather; if it doesn't rain soon we're done for and so on; and then I looked at your latest photographs and I thought, that's just plain scary! My usual reaction to your wintery pics is a desire to somehow transport myself to your side of the world and have a quick roll around in that icy cold snow but it looks like I would sink into this lot, never to be seen again. Happy darning and stay safe. x

Dawn said...

I remember thinking, when I lived in the UP, that life in the far north is hard, and no place for old men....years before Cormac Mccarthy used something similar for the title of his book. On the other hand...what price is a person willing to pay for the priviledge of living in such a wildly beautiful place? Or are such places best for visiting and not living? No real answer at all I guess. Hunker down, stay warm and safe. It's the best we can do no matter where we live.

Gerry said...

I've thought about the wisdom of living in my house, too, and concluded that life itself is a dangerous proposition. Ah well. Tomorrow I will sit down to pay bills: the plowing, the propane, the winter taxes . . . now that's scary.

P. J. Grath said...

Out on the highway, just to the north of our driveway, there's a spot where the road is considerably lower than the land on its west side, and when the snow builds up there and the wind blows -- well, I just wish you could see the mountain pass we are now negotiating at that point. Parts of driveway look similar. Kathy, I really do sympathize with your heat and drought, but I have to remind myself about such a state of affairs. It's so far from my own experience this time of year that it's as if we live on different planets.

Dawn and Gerry, here in snowy Michigan: we're here now, we're here now....

Kathy said...

We've been wondering how many years we'll be able to "do this" especially the roof shoveling. Even ice fishing has been challenging this year because the snow's too deep. It is a lot of work to live in the north during deep winter.