Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Winter Reading

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 12•24

I’m awake annoying early, it’s 39 degrees farenheit here, and the winds have settled down. Unlike other parts of the country now blanketed in white, the snow, ice, sleet, winds, and freezing temperatures  haven’t arrived yet in the Willamette Valley, but they’re arriving tonight. When I first moved here in 1993 I’d venture out when it was snowing–a rarer occurence 31 years ago–but learned quickly to stay off the roads during ‘snow events.’ Think bumper cars, black ice, terrified, inept drivers, and cities ill-equipped for any accumulation.

When I lived in Milwaukee where blizzards and massive snowstorms were the norm, a snow fall meant city workers rumbled and thundered through the streets with plows and trucks deployed with the expertise of a D-Day-type operation. It was effiicient and it was loud.  I was shocked at living in a city that didn’t have similar equiment and strategies, but I adjusted.

I stayed home.

Even though I know how to drive in snow, the majority of my fellow Oregonians do not.

These days I live on a steep hill and leaving home requires first traversing a sharp, often icy street to leave my neighborhood and then continuing up the hill or sliding further down it. But before turning up or down, directly across lies a deep, wooded ravine with a paltry barrier about two feet high. One that displays a series of dents might I add. I plan to never plunge down that ravine, and yes, a rescue helicopter has plucked at least one person out since I’ve lived here.

Eying the forecasts I decided to make soup and bought ingredients early and then surmised I needed an engrossing novel for the weekend.  Despite the fact that I’ve got piles of books to be read around here, I’m always up for an excuse to buy a new one.

So I googled fiction set in winter and came up with this gem: The Tenderness of Wolves, written by Steph Penney. First, the title drew me in. Then there were the opening lines: The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott’s store with dead wolf over his shoulder. I had gone to get needles, and he had come in for the bounty. Scott insisted on the whole carcass, having once been bamboozled by a Yankee who brought in a pair of ears one day and claimed his bounty, then sometime later brought in the paws for another dollar, and finally the tail. It was winter and the parts looked fairly fresh, and the con became common knowledge, to Scott’s disgust. So the wolf’s face was the first thing I saw when I walked in. The tongue lolled out of the mouth, which was pulled back in a grimace. I flinched despite myself. 

And I was hooked.Especially since it’s 1867 in a small isolated settlement in the Northern Territories. And the protagonist discovers the grisly murdered corpse of Laurent Jammet.

The Guardian’s book  review was tantalizing and included, But Penney’s evocation of northern Canada couldn’t ring truer if she’d spent months wandering through the land with nothing but a pack of Huskies and a native tracker for company.   I was delighted to make this discovery via the Grammaticus blog hosted by Nemad, an educator, language coach, and translator living in Serbia. I’m recommending it.

On December 20th he posted a list of his favorite wintertime books, including The Tenderness of Wolves. Reading The Guardian review I learned that Penney is agrophobic. The reviewer speculated about the thoroughness of her research and how her character’s adventures drastically differed from her lived reality. She’s Scottish, loves snow, and has written other novels. Once I find an interesting author out in the world, I learn everything I can about her, don’t you?

I tell you, some writers are fascinating. Happy reading out there.

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