Warming Winter Books

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I lied.

The books I’m thinking of will only warm you up by contrast. No Caribbean cruises here.

Every winter, sometime after nearing the bottom of  Christmas stocking chocolate and before Lenten discipline begins to pall, I find myself craving the sparseness of black tea and its literary equivalent. In such moods I often turn to books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter,” her semi-autobiographical novel about the endless blizzards of 1880-1 in what was then Dakota Territory. Impassable snow lasted from October to May, and the townspeople nearly starved to death before the trains could run again.

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Wilder’s book , with its description of long, grey, claustrophobic days spent huddled around the meager warmth of a stove fueled with twists of hay always makes me grateful for the light, color, and warmth of my life.

This year, I ran into Ruth Sapetys’ “Between Shades of Gray,” Weather again becomes a matter of life and death, this time because fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother and mother are dragged from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police and thrown into a packed boxcar bound for Siberia. Their crime? They’re in Stalin’s way.  They are Lithuanians, and in 1941, Stalin has taken the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia for his own. This strenuously-researched young adult novel depicts a time of history that few people are aware of and with good reason. The Soviets didn’t begin to withdrawn their troops until 1993, and for all that time, the few survivors of the deportations lived in terrified silence because to tell their story would result in re-arrest or death.

I had a college friend whose family was from Estonia. I told her I’d never heard of it. Now I know why.

The story of Lina and her fellow prisoners is such a compelling one that once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. The prisoners are worked to death, first in frigid Siberia, subsisting, if they can stay on their feet and work and don’t run afoul of the Soviet guards, on a daily piece of bread. Then Lina and her family are transported to even worse –believe it or not–conditions: taken by barge to a spot in the upper Arctic Circle where they are to build a fish camp for the Soviets.  When they have time, they’re allowed to gather driftwood, moss, and frozen mud to create flimsy makeshift huts in which they must somehow survive the Arctic cold. When Lina comments that the ground is already frozen when they arrive in August, you get a faint inkling of what the long, dark Arctic winter will bring to these scantily-clad, emaciated prisoners.

Yet this is also a story filled with hope, with heart, with the power of love to transfigure the grimmest of moments. Each character becomes someone you care about, someone whose survival you root for.  A gifted artist, Lina decides early on to get word to her father of their whereabouts by sketching snippets from their daily life on bits of paper or bark which she passes along whenever she gets a chance. You find yourself willing each scrap to reach its destination, to survive as testament to the lives they document, even as so many of those lives end. I reviewed it in my “Bookmarked” column in this week’s edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger.

“Between Shades of Gray” reminded me of a paperback I bought for something like fifty cents decades ago through one of those Scholastic magazines we used to get in grade school. I still have it: “The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile.

IMG_1775 In it, author Esther Hautzig tells her own story of the years she spent in Siberia after she and her Polish family are arrested by the Soviet police in 1941 for the crime of being “capitalists.”   As in Sapetys’ novel, this is one of survival, but also hope and love.

These books are like Lina’s drawings, documentation of vibrant human life in the midst of death.  Somehow they suit winter, when all of nature sleeps, when I most need reminding of life.  They make me aware of the light and laughter that exist in spite of cruel weather or crueler man; they make me actively grateful for the ludicrous number of comforts that cushion our cold winter days.

Your winter reading?

 

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