I didn’t know what this was about when I started it. I know I got this recommendation from somewhere – possibly another book blog – but the source is lost to me now. (Thank you, whoever you are.) So I went in absolutely cold, which is sometimes a really fun way to do things.
It turned out to be a great book, and a great audio version. Our narrator, Stephen, begins the story reminiscing about his childhood in Sawgamet, a fictional British Columbia town, growing up with his mother, father, and sister, and quickly leading into the tragic accident that claims half their family. Then we go back even further, to visit his paternal grandfather, Jeannot, who founded the town. It gradually becomes clear that Stephen has returned to Sawgamet after several decades’ absence, bringing along his own wife and children, to sit at his mother’s deathbed. I’m not sure if we ever learned who his intended audience is in this reminiscence, whether he’s working on a memoir or leaving a story behind for anyone in particular, but he does directly address the reader from time to time. He muses quietly, lovingly, contemplatively, on the experiences of three generations of his family scraping their livings from the bitterly cold winters and dark woods surrounding the town.
Jeannot founded Sawgamet with a gold rush, finding first one and then a second large chunk of gold, with panners and miners following on his heels; but his gold-luck ran out and he quickly turned to logging, which industry outlasted the gold by many years. The young Jeannot takes a wife and their child will become Stephen’s father, Pierre, but Pierre is but a babe when the first tragedies hit their family. No spoilers here, but my, it is a brutal place, where people are sometimes snowbound for months on end, and the woods offer not only gold, and lumber, but also a supernatural element of danger, fear, insecurity. By the time Stephen is born, gold is a distant memory and the town is employed by logging, which has its own obvious expiration date.
The story, switching between the lives of Jeannot, Pierre, and Stephen, is beautifully told, and the narrator of this audiobook, Norman Dietz, performs wonderfully. There is a wondering quality – appropriate, since much is recalled through the eyes of a very young Stephen – that makes the lyrical language feel lovely and dreamlike. The setting was quite exotic and fantastic for me, a Texas native with limited experience with snow; the cold that is described here is literally beyond my imagination. Make no mistake, there are scary, disturbing, dark moments. But there is also love, romantic as well as a loyal familial love. There is death, but also redemption and reunion. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I’m so glad I did. I highly recommend this book. It is evocative, beautiful, loving, quietly disturbing and engrossing; and I recommend this audio version, as well.