Cover image for The winter people
Title:
The winter people
ISBN:
9780385538497
Edition:
First edition.
Physical Description:
317 pages ; 25 cm
Geographic Term:
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.
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Summary

Summary

The New York Times bestselling author of Promise Not to Tell returns with a simmering literary thriller about ghostly secrets, dark choices, and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters . . . sometimes too unbreakable.

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.


Author Notes

Jennifer McMahon was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She received a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. Before becoming full-time writer in 2000, she worked as a house painter, farm worker, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness. Her first novel, Promise Not to Tell, was published in 2007. Her other works include Island of Lost Girls, Dismantled, and My Tiki Girl. In 2014, her title The Winter People made The New York Times Best Seller List.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this scary thriller, McMahon (The One I Left Behind) explores how far people will go to save the ones they love, and what results when they go too far. In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea, a resident of West Hall, Vt., becomes convinced she can bring her murdered daughter back to life. In the present day, 19-year-old Ruthie Washburne's mother vanishes from their farm without a trace, forcing Ruthie to research West Hall's dark history of disappearances, animal sacrifice, and inexplicable phenomena. Ruthie's chilling discovery that Sara was found murdered with her skin removed a few months after her daughter's burial raises the stakes. Almost every character is imbued with a great deal of psychological depth, which makes the stereotypical portrayal of Auntie, a Native American sorceress, all the more disappointing. McMahon is more successful when she deftly switches between past and present, using the changes in perspective to increase the tension. Author tour. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* After a night of partying, 19-year-old Ruthie awakens to a world of impossibilities: her mother, an off-the-grid hippie who rarely leaves their Vermont farm, is missing, and Ruthie is left to care for her young sister. Ruthie desperately searches their old farmhouse for clues and uncovers a hidden compartment in her mother's room filled with frightening artifacts: a pair of strangers' wallets, a loaded gun, and a book entitled Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea. The diary reveals a 100-year-old mystery lending credence to the campfire tales about their farm, the nearby Devils' Hand rock formation, locals who have gone missing, and her mother's warnings that bad things happen in their woods. Ruthie begins tracking her mother with the information in the wallets and soon finds links between the diary's horrors and her mother's disappearance. McMahon has developed a subgenre of psychological mysteries that pit female characters with humanizing strengths and vulnerabilities against old secrets posing present dangers, forcing them to confront mystery and legend in creepily seductive settings. This mystery-horror crossover is haunting, evocative, and horrifically beautiful, a triumph that shares good literary company with Karen Novak's Five Mile House (2000), Tananarive Due's The Good House (2003), Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale (2006), and Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird (2007).--Tran, Christine Copyright 2010 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

"READING A book is a dangerous thing," says Remshi, the protagonist of Glen Duncan's by blood we live (Knopf, $25.95), speaking, you might say, the wisdom of the ages: He's the world's oldest vampire, 20,000 years young, give or take. "A book," he goes on to say, "can make you find room in yourself for something you never thought you'd understand. Or worse, something you never wanted to understand." Although it's always risky to attribute the thoughts of a fictional character to its creator, it's a reasonably safe bet that this bloodsucker's sentiments aren't far from those of the novelist, who has made a habit of writing books about things most of us would rather not understand too well. "By Blood We Live" is in fact the conclusion of a trilogy of first-person monster stories, begun in 2011 with "The Last Werewolf" and continued the next year in "Talulla Rising," for which Duncan's sprightly 2003 monologue, "I, Lucifer," could now be considered a warm-up. As Remshi sees it, learning to live with what your nature compels you to do is the only way to be a vampire - or, like Talulla, the book's heroine and the vampire's unlikely object of desire, a werewolf. "Find room for this or die" is his philosophy, and even given that "this" includes murder and exsanguination (and for werewolves even more unsavory acts), it's a fine credo for a writer of fiction too. For horror writers, especially, Remshi's words should ring out like Henry V's at Agincourt, a call to arms, a vigorous stirring of the literary warrior's blood. And yet the grisly few who do battle in this particular field don't always find as much room for their inner beasts as they should. Remshi, a hopeless romantic, believes that "Every life you take - like every book you read, even the bad ones - makes you a little bigger," but most readers of horror, I'd guess, don't feel significantly enlarged by their encounters with monsters on the printed page. Written horror seems itself a diminished thing these days. If the goal of the genre is merely to shock, appall, amaze, frighten and excite unwholesomely, there are plenty of more effective ways to get there: movies, TV shows, comics and games generally do that dirty work better, in 2014, than novels and short stories do. In my recent reading, I've found myself again and again wondering why a particular story needs to be a book. What are words doing here that images can't? Why am I reading about people fighting zombies when I could be watching "The Walking Dead" (or looking at Robert Kirkman's excellent comic)? What piece of 21st-century vampire literature can compare with Neil Jordan's great, sad, achingly beautiful film "Byzantium," which came and went too quickly a year ago? If there's nothing going on in a horror novel except action, reading it is like watching a movie in slow motion, one frame at a time, or looking at a comic book with no pictures. The good horror of the past few years, like Duncan's trilogy, makes at least some conscious effort to distinguish itself from visual storytelling by tapping into elements that are more or less specific to the experience of old-media - you know, words on a page - narrative: stuff like voice, shifting perspectives, verbal ambiguity. In Jennifer McMahon's THE WINTER PEOPLE (Doubleday, $25.95), for example, a pretty straightforward tale of mysterious disappearances in rural Vermont manages to engage your attention by alternating present-tense narration with entries from the journal of Sara Harrison Shea, dead for decades and somehow holding the key to a still-fresh supernatural mystery. McMahon is a scrupulous writer, nicely attentive to nuances of character and landscape. But the novel needs the added gravity lent by the old journal entries, particularly toward the end, when the plot, having thickened like a middle-aged waistline, huffs and puffs toward resolution. Through all the increasingly preposterous action, the mournful voice of Sara Shea lingers in the memory, and McMahon, wisely, gives her the fast word. FOR GENRE WRITERS, elaborate plotting is a constant temptation, and a trap. The Swedish novelist Marie Hermanson cannily embeds her awareness of that danger in the baroque overcomplication of THE DEVIL'S SANCTUARY (Grand Central, paper, $15), a Piranesi prison of a story. Its hero, named Daniel, pays a visit to his shady twin brother, Max, in a Swiss psychiatric hospital, and wakes up one morning to find that Max is gone and he, Daniel, can't get out. Nothing can persuade the mental health professionals that he isn't his brother. And the institution, whose idea of therapy is on the peculiar side, happens to be nestled in a peaceful valley from which it's just about impossible to escape. This is a workably nightmarish premise, which Hermanson exploits cleverly, doling out the odd glimmer of hope only to enmesh her hero, and the reader, more deeply in the no-exit web she's spinning. (The lively translation is by Neil Smith.) Since reading is a solitary activity, imprisoning you in your own head, a feeling of claustrophobia is something horror fiction can create pretty effectively. And every writer knows what it's like to be in a plot you can't see your way out of. The bad place from which there is apparently no escape is a popular motif in horror anyway - all those haunted houses whose doors keep slamming shut when people try to flee. The title location of THE MALL, by S.L. Grey (Corvus/Atlantic Books, paper, $12.95), is a particularly nasty variation because the physical reality of the place in question keeps changing, seeming to migrate between dimensions; the idea of something as simple as an exit feels, in this context, almost laughably quaint. The main character, a tough, drug-dependent black woman named Rhoda and a sad-sack white bookstore clerk named Daniel, start out in an actual South African shopping mall and wind up, for a time, in some sort of alternative, fun-house-mirror simulacrum of a mall, in which the principles of marketing and consumption are so rigidly observed that they've become a justification for slavery: Salespeople are chained to their counters, and shoppers are compelled, apparently on pain of death, to spend and spend and spend. What's most interesting about "The Mall," which is narrated in alternating chapters by Rhoda and Daniel, is that it begins with action and ends in contemplation, unlike most genre fiction. Chase sequences dominate the first part of the novel: Rhoda thinks of the experience in terms of movies, Daniel in terms of games. But as the book goes along, their voices, in their different ways, take on a more philosophical tone as they begin to wonder which of the two harsh realities available to them is actually the more unpalatable: The slave-state mall seduces them even as it imprisons them. "The Mall" is essentially satirical, but this is satire of the most mournful kind. Louise Beeston, the semi-reliable narrator of Sophie Hannah's devilishly elegant THE ORPHAN CHOIR (Picador, $25), feels trapped, too, at first in the Victorian townhouse she shares with her husband in Cambridge, England, and later in the very different setting of a planned-to-the-teeth gated community in the countryside. In Cambridge, she's driven to distraction by a rude neighbor who blares Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" through the shared walls at times Louise considers inappropriate. (Is there ever an appropriate time for Queen?) As if that weren't horror enough, her husband has engaged a contractor to sandblast the outside of the house, which requires sealing up all the windows, leaving poor Louise cocooned in darkness for weeks on end. What really stresses her out, though, is the sound - of unknown origin - of a children's choir singing liturgical music. She wants to blame the neighbor: Though it doesn't seem his sort of thing at all, she speculates that it's a dig at her for having sent her 7-year-old son to board at Saviour College School, which has a prestigious choir. The reader, of course, suspects that the music is all in Louise's head, a symptom of her guilt for having agreed to send her son away. In the extremely funny first half of "The Orphan Choir," the narrator's sleep-deprived paranoia and irritability intensify steadily, to the point where her credibility - with her husband, her neighbors, the authorities to whom she doggedly complains and, most of all, the reader - is pretty much shot. But when the scene shifts to the country, the balance of belief begins, subtly, gradually, to alter, and supernatural possibilities start seeping into the mind like the English fog. Every ghost story worthy of the name breathes that musty air of ambiguity. Turn the words one way, you're imagining things; turn them another, you're being haunted. Hannah is primarily a writer of crime stories, and, perhaps from long habit, considerately ends by supplying a full explanation of these strange goings-on. Susan Hill (who also writes mysteries) prefers not to. THE MIST IN THE MIRROR (Vintage, paper, $15), published in England in 1992 and only now seeing the light of print here, tells the perfectly ambiguous story of an orphan named James Monmouth, who returns to England after years of globe-trotting in the wake of a famous adventurer, Conrad Vane. On his home soil, he finds himself unsettled by inexplicable apparitions, odd coincidences and disturbing whispers about the long-dead Vane, and starts to wonder who, for all these years, has been pursuing whom. As he drifts through the country, from London to the wild North, his sense of himself becomes, at times, perilously shaky, and he feels as if he were in "some uncertain nightmare world, where things changed and shifted, and I could no longer trust my own senses." At one point, he asks himself a series of questions that distill the essence of the classic ghost story: "Were the incidents linked, or quite random? Were they meaningless? Was I making connections where none existed? Had they meaning? Had anything? Were the phantoms and warnings and fearful moments brought about by anything outside myself, or was I losing my sanity? Was there nothing without, only things within?" Without or within is always the question, and Hill knows, as Henry James and Shirley Jackson did, that it's a question best left only partly answered. Metaphoric demons can be as deadly as malevolent specters, after all. LITERARY GHOSTS HAVE, on the whole, had better luck holding their own against visual forms of horror than other weird entities have, because the action in ghost stories always takes place most crucially in the imagination - in the minds of people who, like James Monmouth, are constantly questioning the evidence of their senses. That sort of self-interrogation tends not to be provoked by encounters with, say, zombies, werewolves or vampires. In Glen Duncan's novels, it's the monsters who do all the ruminating and philosophizing. In "By Blood We Live," both the vampire Remshi and the werewolf Talulla are at least tantalized, if not a little obsessed, by the possibility of discovering some coherence - a story - in their bizarre existence. They're fiends for meaning. "This is the gift of the blood," Remshi says. "Slake the thirst and the world gestures beyond itself to an underlying blueprint. The world is a series of vivid clues to the riddle beyond appearances. The world has a purpose, a pattern, a story, a plot." Easy for him to say: He's 20 millenniums old. Talulla, who's been a werewolf for only a few years, is still so desperate to understand her condition that she risks her life in pursuit of an archaeologist's journal that might explain the origins of lycanthropy. "Maybe the truth of how it all began," she hopes. "Maybe the truth of what it all meant." Because Duncan's monsters are, between atrocities, seekers of truth, they're not quite as terrifying as such creatures usually are; sometimes they're as uncertain and confused as we humans. It may not even be useful to think of Duncan's remarkable trilogy as horror fiction. But these books do have a lot to say to writers of horror, because their characters are irreducibly verbal creations, beasts who are trying to read the world and who are, thanks to Duncan, presenting themselves to be read. In the end, "By Blood We Live" really does feel sort of dangerous, in a way that genre horror almost never does. At one point, a young vampire, newly turned, quotes Remshi to the effect that "you couldn't trust it, the feeling of things seeming to mean things." And then she corrects herself: "Or what he'd actually said was you had to trust it and mistrust it, to keep bouncing between the two." That's what we do when we read anything, horror or not, finding room for what we hope will make us a little bigger. When books are as good as Duncan's, we can drink them in greedily, as Remshi does, and still live with ourselves. Just not as long. TERRENCE RAFFERTY, the author of "The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies," is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.


Kirkus Review

A peaceful Vermont village turns creepy in this tale of the dead returning to life. Sara Harrison Shea's precious daughter, Gertie, dies in 1908 during a harsh and unforgiving winter in which her mother and father, Martin, struggle to keep food on the table. Gertie isn't the first child Sara has lost, but her death is the one she has the most difficult time accepting. When she refuses to believe that Gertie is gone forever and blames Martin for her loss, Sara sets in motion a tragic and horrifying chain of events that will forever change the lives of everyone around them. Flashing back and forth between Sara's time period and the present, the author evokes a sense of suffering and hopelessness as she gathers a cast of characters who bring out the worst in one another: the mysterious, otherworldly Auntie who raised Sara and died before Gertie's birth; the present-day sisters, Ruthie and lemur-eyed, feverish Fawn, who live with their mother, Alice, known in the town as the Egg Lady; and Katherine, newly arrived, a recent widow and artist who is also mourning her lost son. Alice and her late husband were careful to shield their daughters from the outside world, forbidding them access to the Internet, television and other technology, and home-schooling Ruthie. So when Alice vanishes, Ruthie's search for her causes her to cross paths with people and things she doesn't understand. McMahon, a masterful storyteller who understands how to build suspense, creates an ocean of tension that self-implodes in the last two-thirds of the book. That's when her characters make implausible decisions that cause them to behave like teens in low-budget horror films who know there's a mad killer on the loose, yet when they hear noises in the basement, they go down alone to investigate anyway. Although she writes flawless prose, McMahon's characters' improbable choices derail her story.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Would you do anything to bring a lost loved one back to life? McMahon's (Promise Not To Tell) latest novel weaves the chilling tale of Sara Harrison Shea, whose life was full of tragedy and brutal deaths. In 1908, after her daughter mysteriously dies, Sara is found flayed to death, presumably by her husband, who commits suicide at the scene. For years the townspeople swear they see Sara at the sites of many local tragedies, and even skeptics leave gifts for her on their doorsteps in hopes of escaping her wrath. Generations later, a new family moves into Sara's home. Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister, Fawn, live in fear of the mysterious forest behind their house, where "sleepers" are rumored to live. These pale, bloodthirsty spirits of the undead are the result of grief-stricken family members using dark magic to bring their loved ones back to life. When Ruthie's mother goes missing, the sisters embark on a downright creepy journey to find her, a journey that also reveals the truth about Sara. Verdict Extremely well written with a story line that is sure to delight (and frighten) thriller lovers and supernatural fans, this novel has the makings of a blockbuster horror flick. [Prepub Alert, 9/15/13.]-Chelsie Harris, San Diego Cty. Lib. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Visitors from the Other Side The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea January 29, 1908 The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old. It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away--before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville. I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil's Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack-in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lift the striped hood, you'll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing. I recognized her at once--Hester Jameson. She'd died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best. Hester's father, Erwin, ran Jameson's Tack and Feed Shop. He wore a black coat with frayed sleeves, and his nose was red and running. Beside him stood his wife, Cora Jameson, a heavyset woman who had a seamstress shop in town. Mrs. Jameson sobbed into a lace handkerchief, her whole body heaving and trembling. I had been to funerals before, but never for someone my own age. Usually it was the very old or the very young. I couldn't take my eyes off the casket, just the right size for a girl like me. I stared at the plain wooden box until I grew dizzy, wondering what it might feel like to be laid out inside. Papa must have noticed, because he took my hand and gave it a squeeze, pulled me a little closer to him. Reverend Ayers, a young man then, said Hester was with the angels. Our old preacher, Reverend Phelps, was stooped over, half deaf, and none of what he said made any sense--it was all frightening metaphors about sin and salvation. But when Reverend Ayers with his sparkling blue eyes spoke, it felt as if he said each word right to me. "I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you." For the first time, I understood the word of God, because Reverend Ayers spoke it. His voice, all the girls said, could soothe the Devil himself. A red-winged blackbird cried out conk-a-reee from a nearby hazel bush. He puffed up his red shoulders and sang over and over, as loud as he could, his call almost hypnotic; even Reverend Ayers paused to look. Mrs. Jameson dropped to her knees, keening. Mr. Jameson tried to pull her up, but did not have the strength. I stood right beside Papa, clutching his hand, as dirt was shoveled down on the coffin of poor Hester Jameson. Hester had a crooked front tooth, but a beautifully delicate face. She had been the best in our class at arithmetic. Once, for my birthday, she gave me a note with a flower pressed inside. A violet it was, dried out and perfectly preserved. May your day be as special as you are, she'd written in perfect cursive. I tucked it into my Bible, where it stayed for years, until it either disintegrated or fell out, I cannot recall. Now, two weeks after her very own funeral, Hester's sleeper caught sight of me there in the woods, crouching behind the rock. I shall never forget the look in her eyes--the frightened half-recognition of someone waking from a horrible dream. 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. I think I may have even played this game once with Hester Jameson. I had heard whispers, rumors of sleepers called back from the land of the dead by grieving husbands and wives, but was certain they only existed in the stories old women liked to tell each other while they folded laundry or stitched stockings--something to pass the time, and to make any eavesdropping children hurry home before dark. I had been sure, up until then, that God in his infinite wisdom would not have allowed such an abomination. Hester and I were not ten feet apart. Her blue dress was filthy and torn, her corn-silk hair in tangles. She gave off the musty smell of damp earth, but there was something else behind it, an acrid, greasy, burnt odor, similar to what you smell when you blow out a tallow candle. Our eyes met, and I yearned to speak, to say her name, but could only manage a strangled-sounding Hss. Hester ran off into the woods like a startled rabbit. I stayed frozen, clinging pathetically to my rock like a bit of lichen. From down the path leading to the Devil's Hand came another figure, running, calling Hester's name. It was her mother, Cora Jameson. She stopped when she saw me, face flushed and frantic. She was breathing hard and had scratches on her face and arms, pieces of dry leaves and twigs tangled in her hair. "Tell no one," she said. "But why?" I asked, stepping out from behind the rock. She looked right at me--through me, almost, as if I were a pane of dirty window glass. "Someday, Sara," she said, "maybe you'll love someone enough to understand." Then she ran off into the woods, following her daughter. I told Auntie about it later. "Is it really possible?" I asked. "To bring someone back like that?" We were down by the river, picking fiddleheads, filling Auntie's basket with the curled fern tops, as we did each spring. Then we'd bring them home and make a creamy soup stuffed full of wild greens and herbs that Auntie had gathered along the way. We were also there to check the traps--Auntie had caught a beaver just two days before and was hoping for another. Beaver pelts were a rarity and brought a high price. They were once nearly as common as squirrels', Auntie said, but trappers had taken all except a handful. Buckshot was with us, nosing the ground, ears attentive to every little sound. I never knew if he was all wolf, or only part. Auntie had found him as a pup, when he'd fallen into one of her pit traps after being all shot up by someone. She'd carried him home, pulled the buckshot pellets out of him, stitched him up, and nursed him back to health. He'd been by her side ever since. "He was lucky you found him," I said after hearing the story. "Luck had nothing to do with it," Auntie told me. "He and I were meant for one another." I never saw such devotion in a dog--or any animal, for that matter. His wounds had healed, but the buckshot left him blind in his right eye, which was milky white. His ghost eye, Auntie called it. "He came so close to death, he's got one eye back there still," she explained. I loved Buckshot, but I hated that milky-white moon that seemed to see everything and nothing all at once. Auntie was not related to me by blood, but she cared for me, raised me after my own mother died giving birth to me. I had no memory of my mother--the only proofs of her existence were my parents' wedding photograph, the quilt she'd sewn that I slept under every night, and the stories my older brother and sister told. My brother claimed I had my mother's laugh. My sister said that my mother had been the best dancer in the county, that she was the envy of all the other girls. Auntie's people came from up north, in Quebec. Her father had been a trapper; her mother, an Indian woman. Auntie carried a hunting knife, and wore a long deerskin coat decorated with bright beads and porcupine quills. She spoke French, and sang songs in a language I never did recognize. She wore a ring carved from yellowed bone on her right pointer finger. "What does it say?" I asked once, touching the strange letters and symbols on its surface. "That life is a circle," she answered. People in town were frightened of Auntie, but their fear did not keep them away from her door. They followed the well-worn path to her cabin in the woods out behind the Devil's Hand, carrying coins, honey, whiskey--whatever they had to trade for her remedies. Auntie had drops for colic, tea for fever, even a little blue bottle that she swore contained a potion so powerful that with one drop the object of your heart's desire would be yours. I knew better than to doubt her. There were other things I knew about Auntie, too. I'd seen her sneak out of Papa's bedroom in the early morning, heard the sounds that came from behind his locked door when she visited him there. I also knew better than to cross her. She had a fiery temper and little patience with people who did not see things her way. If people refused to pay her for her services, she'd call on them, sprinkle their homes with black powder pulled from one of her leather pouches, and speak a strange incantation. Terrible things would befall those families from then on: sicknesses, fires, crop losses, even death. I tossed a handful of dark-green fiddleheads into the basket. "Tell me, Auntie, please," I begged, "can the dead come back?" Auntie looked at me a long time, head cocked to the side, her small, dark eyes fixed on mine. "Yes," she told me at last. "There is a way. Few know of it, but those who do, pass it down to their children. Because you are the closest I will ever come to a child of my own, the secret will go to you. I will write it all down, everything I know about sleepers. I will fold up the papers, put them in an envelope, and seal it with wax. You will hide it away, and one day, when you are ready, you will open it up." "How will I know I am ready?" I asked. She smiled, showing her small teeth, pointed like a fox's and stained brown from tobacco. "You will know." I am writing these words in secret, hidden under covers. Martin and Lucius believe I am sleeping. I hear them downstairs, drinking coffee and discussing my prognosis. (Not good, I'm afraid.) I have been going back in my mind, thinking over how all of this began, piecing things together the way one might sew a quilt. But, oh, what a hideous and twisted quilt mine would be! "Gertie," I hear Martin say above the clink of a spoon stirring coffee in his favorite tin mug. I imagine the furrow of his brow, the deep worry lines there; how sad his face must be after he spoke her name. I hold my breath and listen hard. "Sometimes a tragedy breaks a person," Lucius says. "Sometimes they will never be whole again." If I close my eyes even now, I can still see my Gertie's face, feel her sugary breath on my cheek. I can so vividly recall our last morning together, hear her saying, "If snow melts down to water, does it still remember being snow?" Martin January 12, 1908 "Wake up, Martin." A soft whisper, a flutter against his cheek. "It's time." Martin opened his eyes, leaving the dream of a woman with long dark hair. She'd been telling him something. Something important, something he was not supposed to forget. He turned over in bed. He was alone, Sara's side of the bed cold. He sat up, listening carefully. Voices, soft giggles across the hall, from behind Gertie's bedroom door. Had Sara spent the whole night in with Gertie again? Surely it couldn't be good for the girl, to smother her like that. Sometimes he worried that Sara's attachment to Gertie simply wasn't . . . healthy. Just last week, Sara had kept Gertie home from school for three straight days, and for those three days Sara doted on her--plaiting her hair, making her a new dress, baking her cookies, playing hide-and-seek. Sara's niece, Amelia, offered to take Gertie for the weekend, and Sara had made excuses--she gets homesick so easily, she's so frail--but Martin understood that it was Sara who could not bear to be without Gertie. Sara never seemed whole unless Gertie was by her side. He pushed the worried thoughts away. Better to focus on the problems he understood and could do something about. The house was cold, the fire out. He peeled back the covers, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and pulled on his pants. His bad foot hung there like a hoof till he shoved it into the special boot fashioned for him by the cobbler in Montpelier. The soles were worn through, and he'd stuffed the bottoms of both boots with dry grass and cattail fluff, all layered over scraps of leather, in a futile attempt to keep the dampness out. There was no money for new custom-made boots now. Blight had ruined most of last fall's potato crop, and they relied on the money they got from selling the potatoes to the starch factory to get through the winter. It was only January, and the root cellar was nearly bare: a few spongy potatoes and carrots, some Hubbard squash, half a dozen jars of string beans and tomatoes Sara had put up last summer, a little salt pork from the hog they'd butchered in November (they'd traded most of the meat for dry goods at the general store). Martin would have to get a deer soon if they were going to have enough to eat. Sara had a talent for stretching what little food they had, for making milk gravy and biscuits with a bit of salt pork into a meal, but she couldn't create something from nothing. Excerpted from The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.