A few years back I read Jennifer McMahon’s debut novel Promise Not To Tell, and I enjoyed it a great deal. A couple years after that I read McMahon’s novel Dismantled, a book I did not like one bit. Now I’ve just finished reading The Winter People, and I have to say it falls sort of in between.The Winter People is a story which bounces between present day and 1908. In the past, Sara Harrison Shea lives on the farm where she grew up with her husband, Martin, and her little girl, Gertie. West Hall, Vermont is well-known for its mysteries and ghost stories, many of which center around Sara and her family farm, a house filled with secret places and, well, secrets.
In her diary, Sara writes “The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.”
I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget-me-nots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl’s ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.
Turns out, though, there is dark magic and Sara’s Auntie, an Indian woman who cared for Sara’s dying mother before she started sleeping with Sara’s widowed father promises to “write it all down, everything I know about sleepers.” In case it’s not obvious, sleepers are people brought back from the dead, but they only exist for seven days, you, know, unless they shed blood during that time – then they live forever.
In the present, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her little sister, Fawn. One morning Ruthie gets up to discover her mother is missing. Cold tea on the table, truck in the barn – vanished into thin air.
Then there’s Katherine. She’s still grieving the loss of her son, Austin, when her husband, Gary, is killed in a car accident. Thing is, he told her he was going to be one place and he was actually in West Hall. Last seen: Lou Lou’s Cafe with Alice.
These disparate threads do come together by novel’s end, but I lost interest about half-way through. The Winter People is clearly meant to be a ghost story, but once crazy Candace shows up, intent on getting the missing pages of Sara’s diary so she can sell the secret of raising the dead so she can fight for custody of her son -yeah, right about then I was…c’mon. Oh, plus there’s a gun. Two guns actually. And other crazy shenanigans. And then, a lot of exposition to tie up those pesky loose ends.
When McMahon stuck to the ghost stuff…there were some creepy moments, but The Winter People is nowhere near as good as Promise Not To Tell.