After a cold tragedy in 'Winter,' a family finds a way to thaw

February 06, 2005|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

The Center of Winter

by Marya Hornbacker. Harper Collins. 336 pages. $23.95.

During a brutal winter in Minnesota in 1969, Arnold Schiller, a likable enough drunken father and husband, commits suicide, leaving behind Claire, a heretofore capable working mother, Kate, a prescient first-grader, and Esau, a brilliant but troubled 11-year-old.

Told alternately by Claire, Kate and Esau, The Center of Winter is the story of how these three find their way out of a blinding white storm of grief. As each takes turn to speak, author Marya Hornbacker finds the perfect pitch for their voices and their stories.

This is the long-awaited fiction from Hornbacker, who made her mark on the book world in 1998 with Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, and it is uplifting, even humorous, despite its gloomy subject. It is a captivating first novel.

In The Center of Winter, Claire tries to move forward carrying an impossible load of guilt, and she would fail without her wry and no-nonsense neighbor Donna, who charts a simple series of steps for Claire, beginning with "wash your face."

Donna is the mother of Davey, who is more than a best friend to Kate. They are inseparable. Kate is Davey's stronger self, and she is his weaker self too. Without each other, they would not survive the tragedies that befall them, abandoned as they are by the adults who seem to think that children do not comprehend anything and will remember less.

Esau, whose institutionalization brings the family to its breaking point, is probably manic-depressive, but this being the sixties, there is no clear diagnosis for him and no decent help. He brings himself back to the world by sheer force of will and with the unintended help of his friends in the day room at the state hospital.

Hornbacker is a resident of Minneapolis, and Minnesota, with its hard winters, its improbably hot, wet summers, its people and its landscape, is both a character and a cause in this novel.

She writes: "All the seasons here in the north move toward their own end, except winter, which moves toward its center and sits there to see how long you can take it."

Arnold, too, is present, briefly in life in the opening of the novel and then in the memories of all the characters. He is a phantom of love and failure. He is not dead so much as he is "gone." He didn't die, he didn't leave, he disappeared. And the inexplicable open-endedness of that departure is what leaves his family suspended, each in his own bubble of incomprehension.

But he is adored, even by Claire, who wants to claim his suicide as her own private pain. Not until she notices the wounded children in the room does she begin to move forward to help them and to help herself.

By the end of the novel, much time has passed and Claire, Kate and Esau live in a future none of them could have imagined during that awful winter. Kate, the latest in literature's wise and clever children, is a grown woman now and she has the last word in this novel, and they are the best words:

"You cannot live with the past cluttering up the house. You cannot waste your love. You must love what is left, what has the will to live."

Susan Reimer is a Sun columnist.

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