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Chill Factor

Revisiting Some Literary Scenes of Winter

By Lily Thayer | Posted 12/27/2000

Winter makes for spectacular literary terrain. A season of physical extremes and harsh beauty, its effect on the external landscape--and on the human mind-- is remarkable. Witness the relentless cold that settles on the land and blankets the psyche of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. Or the paralyzing isolation felt by a man and his dog as the man tries to make a fire at 175 degrees below zero in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire." Both works are staples of any good high school English curriculum, due in part to their ability to make winter's desperation tangible to a 10th grader sitting in a climate-controlled study hall.

In these stories, winter makes day-to-day existence harder, and it makes the routine of life feel a lot lonelier. These older works and a spate of very fine 1990s novels worth revisiting explore the theme of dreadful solitude wrought by the muffled sound, deadened light, and bitter cold of brief winter days and long, desperate winter nights. Each of the novels mentioned here have been made into movies, but it's worth taking a fresh look at the original works, which each offer elements the films couldn't.

Perhaps the least literary of the past decade's novels about winter, Scott Smith's 1993 book A Simple Plan (Knopf) nonetheless conveys the alienation wrought by a snow-shrouded environment. Like the progression of a snowstorm, from first, hopeful snowflake to wailing blizzard, A Simple Plan follows the spiraling descent of a trio of small-town Ohioans who discover $4.5 million in a wrecked plane half-buried in the snow. Their initial elation gives way to mistrust and jealousy as the three men decide to keep the money and then wrangle over the details. Narrator Hank Mitchell, an accountant and expectant father, seems at first to be the only member of this new millionaires' club to have his wits about him, but control quickly slides from his grasp. By the book's conclusion, Hank has lost all perspective, with gruesome results.

The desperation felt by the characters in this aggressively disturbing book is compounded by the snow-shrouded landscape that surrounds them. They are bound to a physical world of muffled sound and indistinct horizons that mimics their emotional estrangement from one another and their increasing loss of hope for the future. Weather defines the action, and the prospect of snow or thaw can bring comfort or cause panic.

Smith's broad attempt to emulate the topography of his novel's setting sometimes makes for writing that is monotonous and uninflected. He has a good eye for detail, but his prose style is often overly plain: "It was a cold, sunny day. The snow on the fields had an icy crust to it, and no matter where you looked it seemed to sparkle." A Simple Plan is also reiterative: Hank reaches the same self-surprising conclusions over and over again. And as his actions take on an increasingly psychotic edge, his constant, homey introspection wears thin and false. His attempts to rationalize the unforgivable, to "feel--despite everything I've done that might make it seem otherwise--human, exactly like everyone else," are an affront to the reader who has endured 300 pages of the unspeakable.

The Sweet Hereafter (HarperCollins), Russell Banks beautiful 1991 novel, shares with A Simple Plan a view of the alien milieu of rural America. Like Smith's Ashenville, Ohio, Banks' Sam Dent, N.Y., is a snow-dusted and forgotten pocket of a densely inhabited state. One of Banks' four narrators, lawyer Mitchell Stephens, is astounded by the contrast when he arrives in Sam Dent from Manhattan. "This was wilderness, practically. Like Alaska. . . . 'Forest primeval,' I'm thinking." It is a place as hard-hit by the recession of the early 1990s as it is by a winter storm that blows in one morning, sending a school bus full of the town's children careering off the road.

Unlike Smith, Banks creates a portrait of redemption, one painted in the vivid hues of startling loss. Of the 30 or so kids on the bus, only one survives, town beauty Nichole Burnell. She and bus driver Dolores Driscoll, who also narrate portions of the book, must contend with the knowledge that they could and maybe should have died as well; Nichole is horribly maimed, and Dolores struggles with knowing that she may have been responsible for the accident. A fourth narrator, mechanic Billy Ansel, considers the deaths of his two children and weighs their loss against the other great tragedy of his life, the death of his wife.

Banks' narrative skill lies in unveiling the inner lives of his small-town characters. Their mutual calamity does not stitch the community together so much as it reveals the stresses in the very fabric of shared existence. "We were absolutely alone, each of us," Dolores realizes, "and even our shared aloneness did not modify the simple fact of it." Yet despite their isolation from one another, the characters arrive at a conclusion of some fellowship, after the snow has melted, after the immediate wounds have healed.

The fragile network of an isolated community reappears as the theme of another wintry novel, 1994's Snow Falling on Cedars (Harcourt Brace) by David Guterson. Set in 1954 on an island north of Washington state's Puget Sound, Guterson's book is a meticulously detailed account of the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, who's accused of killing a fellow fisherman over land to which they both laid claim. As in Ashenville and Sam Dent, the residents of Amity Harbor labor under the onus of poor economic prospects. The town's industries--fishing and strawberry cultivation--are closely tied to the sea, the land, the elements. The townspeople are held in the thrall of the region's mercurial weather. "Rain," Guterson writes, "the spirit of the place, patiently beat down everything man-made." It was on a heavily foggy, stormy night that the killing took place, and this proves to be the linchpin of the case.

Guterson's novel is a brilliant intertwining of poetic prose and first-rate suspense. His characters inhabit an atmosphere dense with tension, complicated by an awkward cross-cultural interaction in the wake of the wartime internment of the island's Japanese-American residents. The trial, which takes place during a period of steady snowfall, unfolds with equal steadiness around careful recollections of the past. A local newspaper reporter, Ishmael Chambers, documents the proceedings while stewing over his lost love, who is now Miyamoto's wife. Twelve years after the affair, he feels cynical and emotionally stunted, seeing the people around him as "animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids." Miyamoto struggles to hold onto his dignity after his family's land is sold out from under them. A second-generation resident of Amity Harbor, he feels like a second-class citizen. Hatsue Miyamoto recalls her affair with Ishmael and reflects on the life she has made with Kabuo. Guterson brings all these stories together in adept, muted language, and the tone evokes the very sound of snow alighting on cedars.

With a deftness that rivals Guterson's, Peter Hoeg describes the slippery harbors of Copenhagen and the jagged glaciers of Greenland in his 1993 suspense novel Smilla's Sense of Snow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If the common thread that ties all these works together is loneliness, then Smilla, Hoeg's Greenlander narrator, is the needle. An icy, precision-obsessed stranger in a strange land, Smilla is keenly aware of her own aloneness in the world. Like Amity Harbor, Smilla's Copenhagen isn't particularly friendly to outsiders.

Having grown up on Greenland's ice caps with a seal-hunter mother who tuned her to the spirit of the land, Smilla became a scientist and spent much of her career researching the physical aspects of ice. As a result, she has both a scientific and mystical understanding of snow and ice, both of their strangely organic dimensions and their potential to be utterly deadly. When a little boy--like Smilla, a Greenlander with a keen sense of snow--falls from the top of their apartment building and leaves behind only his tracks in the snow, she is suspicious.

So begins the fast-paced action of this novel, which has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster thriller, from creepy, megalomaniac villains to episodic violence. The narrative spins elaborately from Copenhagen to Greenland to a glacier in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as Smilla seeks to discover the meaning of the boy's death and uncovers a criminal conspiracy in the frozen north. Reading this novel, one cringes in anticipation of Smilla's next brush with death.

It's an effect that can grown tiring. What spares Smilla's Sense of Snow from beach-book breathlessness is Tina Nunnally's translation of Hoeg's artful Danish original and a savvy, eccentric heroine. Hoeg draws fine images of strange, lunar terrains--of Greenland and an offshore shipping port--and relates them to the terrain of an equally strange heart. While Smilla narrates the story in a self-possessed and straightforward voice, she manages to remain something of a cipher, unable to connect with others. This manifests itself in the book's preponderance of one-dimensional, peripheral character types, but the intricacies of the plot balance these deficiencies, making for a gripping read.

Part of the appeal of Smilla's Sense of Snow and other winter-themed works is that they make the reader feel a whole lot better about his or her own relationship to the elements. This time of year, the temperature can drop 20 degrees in two hours, and the blue, sunlit sky can sink to meet the street in a seamless stone-colored canvas. A half-inch of snow can blow in and cripple the city. We spend hours digging out cars, filling our pantries with the requisite rations: bread, milk, toilet paper. At least we're not trying to build a fire at nearly 200 degrees below freezing, or to thread a fishing line in gale-force winds. Instead, we go home, make a cup of tea, and find consolation in a book that hinges on the wintry extremes endured by someone else.

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