Review: “The Winter People,” Jennifer McMahon

Publisher’s Synopsis:  “West Hall, Vermont, has always been a place 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.  Townspeople say that Sara’s ghost walks the streets after midnight, and some still leave offerings on their doorsteps to prevent her from coming inside.
Ruthie Washburne has never put much stock in West Hall’s rumors.  Having grown up in an isolated farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn, she dreams of leaving her sleepy town and escaping her mother’s odd insistence that they live off the grid without Internet or even a listed phone number.  But when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace, she beings to wonder if her mother’s eccentricities have a deeper reason – especially when she finds a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of Alice’s room.
The diary tells the story of a mother on the edge, a mother who is willing to do the unthinkable in order to hold her daughter in her arms once again, no matter the consequences.  And as Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she will discover that she’s no the only one looking for someone lost – nor is she the only person desperate to unlock the secrets that the diary contains.  But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
Rating:  4.5/5
I heard about Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People through the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and I had initially planned to read it right after Her Fearful Symmetry, but I waited because I was worried that they would be too similar.  I’m glad that I held off, but they weren’t as similar as I feared.
I don’t like scary movies.  I used to enjoy ghost stories, but it’s been years since I’ve read a scary book.  The Winter People wasn’t truly scary, but it was definitely a little creepy – I’m glad that I finished it while the sun was still out!    It was a very quick read, mostly because I got hooked so early on.  A wonderful combination of plot, suspense, and characters kept me turning the pages, and the three interacted seamlessly to form a coherent whole.
The narration of The Winter People shifts from first person diary entries from the early 20th century, to third person omniscient narration of that time, to third person omniscient narration in the present day.  All of the third person omniscient narration is told through the ‘lens’ of one of four characters.  This seems to be a big trend in novels right now – I feel like most of the novels I’ve read this year use it to some extent.  McMahon does is extremely well; every time the narration shifted, I was disappointed to leave the story I was on behind, and then I got immediately hooked into the next.  I think that those shifts in narration are a large part of what propelled me to read so quickly.
The characters and the setting of The Winter People were also masterfully achieved.  I constantly felt that I could see the people and places, although I never felt bogged down in length descriptions.  It almost felt as if I’d been dropped into a world that I was already familiar with.
Glancing at some other reviews, I saw mixed thoughts on the ending.  Some readers thought it felt unfinished and didn’t give a sense of closure, and some were hopeful that it was set up for a sequel.  I, for one, don’t want a sequel.  I appreciate the ending for what it was.  The fact of literature is that it is intended to turn a looking glass on life. Novels start when something changes, but it isn’t realistic for endings to wrap themselves up in a package with a neat little bow.  Life doesn’t end like that, so it feels more true to me when novels don’t either.

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