Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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Fruits of the Earth by Frederick Philip Grove

Read: 2004

Fruits of the Earth is the chronicle of Abe Spalding, a farmer possessed by “land hunger.” He leaves his stony and untillable farm in Ontario to start a new farm in the prairies, leaving his wife behind until he has established himself in their new home. The story is as much of his land as it is of Abe, following the two through the years as they shape each other.

Grove masterfully captures his subject, even in his writing style. The novel is slow and plodding, as it watches the passage of years. If you need a faster pace and action, this is absolutely not the novel for you. Instead, Fruits of the Earth draws the reader in to the life of a Prairie farmer, with its struggles, tragedies, successes, and endless cycles. It’s a beautiful novel, and by the end I knew more about wheat growing than I ever thought I would.

It’s a Canadian classic that helps the reader experience – it only vicariously – a part of the country’s history. This isn’t the story of great wars or grand political gestures, but rather of the “little people” who shaped the country with their hands. As an immigrant to Canada, I feel that Fruits of the Earth helped me understand the country a little betters.