Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84, by Thomas Wyke
It’s that time of year again. Grey skies, ice storms, hard freezes, frigid mornings and bitter nights. I’m not talking about the holidays—I’m talking about winter! The solstice is rapidly approaching, but for most of us, I think winter begins when the last of the colorful leaves has fallen and the world around us takes on the fragile white shell of frost.
I actually love winter (up to a point). I’m a January baby, and I always love it when nature celebrates my day with snow. As a kid, it was a point of pride any time the school district declared a snow day on my birthday. I’m fascinated by the crystalline structure of snowflakes, and any fairytale set in a snowy landscape has my riveted attention. Winter has a duality to it that I love: all at once, it’s beautiful and soft and barren and dangerous.
It is, beyond a doubt, a great time for stories.
When we were kids, we learned about the different types of conflict: man versus man, man versus self, man versus society, man versus technology, and man versus nature. Nowadays, we don’t read a lot of man versus nature. Tales set in the wilderness often morph into stories about finding the self in the landscape—journeys of self-discovery that happen only when we pare away the external things and find ourselves alone in the elements.
But the classic man versus nature story doesn’t involve the hipsterish, navel-gazing twist of really being a story about the self. (Though I suppose we could argue that most stories involve a conflict of man versus self, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) True conflict with nature strikes a note of fatalism and fear that can’t be recreated when writing exclusively about self-discovery.
When nature—particularly winter—marks us out for conflict, all we can hope to do is endure. We may discover new depths in our own character, but ultimately, the struggle is to fight back against nature using any tool at hand, including nature herself.
One such story that comes to mind for me is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A seven-month winter besieges the frontier town in South Dakota where the Ingalls family has settled, and they have to find ways to survive without regular sources of food and fuel. As the darkness deepens, Laura and her family must twist hay into sticks to burn in their stove, and they must make do with less and less food. Finally, Laura’s future husband and another young man venture out into the snow in search of wheat to keep the town alive. This was always one of my favorites of the Little House books, not just because of love the details of historical life, but also because it demonstrates the tenacity Laura and her family showed regularly, just trying to survive.
Another collection of wintry tales I adore is The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries, a collection of short (even tiny) stories set during the moments the Thames has frozen. From glimpses of the frost fairs to the story of Queen Matilda’s escape across the Thames from her cousin Stephen, these stories give glimpses of the magic we humans can make when the winter threatens to freeze us alive.
What are your favorite wintry reads?