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If I were marooned on a desert island and could only have one book, it would be Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I first read this book in a Boeing 747, in 1984, on my way to Britain for a three-week vacation with my then-husband. I remember reading a passage, I don’t remember which, that made me cry it was so beautiful.
After Ray and I got married, for a while we went to bed at the same time, and he would read me a chapter before turning out the light. Sometimes I would fall asleep while listening to him read, but I could hear that he liked the book as much as I did (he had not read it before). In 2005, he gave me a hardback first edition of the book, and it lives on my bedside table, always waiting for me to open it to just about any page, and resume the braided stories of Athansor, the white horse, and all the people’s lives he touches.
You might think Winter’s Tale is about the thief, Peter Lake, and his adventures. That’s part of it, but not all. The cover above has a picture of the white horse, but the most important character is what the horse is floating over. Here is the first sentence of the Prologue.
A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done, its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan.
The majority, but not all, of the action takes place in New York City. Some, but not all of the story, takes place in Winter. The first chapter, entitled A White Horse Escapes, introduces us to some of the main characters: Peter Lake, the thief; the Short Tails, a criminal gang who are chasing Peter Lake through the city; and the white horse. The horse escapes his stable in Brooklyn and heads down the snowy streets to Manhattan. “And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city’s hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water, but dreams and time.” In a while, the horse saves Peter Lake from the pursuing Short Tails and their leader, Pearly Soames, and they begin their adventures.
In order to get the most out of Winter’s Tale, the reader must be able to move freely from reality to fantasy and back again, with little or no warning. Helprin tells the tales of Peter Lake and his origins (somewhat like the tale of Moses in his basket, cast upon the waters); the mostly-fantasy town of Lake of the Coheeries somewhere in Upstate New York, and populated by some real characters, like Mrs. Gamely and her daughter, Virginia, and Daythril Moobcot; the Baymen of the Bayonne Marshes; Hardesty Marratta, the prodigal son from San Francisco; the Penn Family and their newspapers; and their cross-town competitor, Craig Binky.
The majority, but not all, of the action takes place in New York City. Some, but not all of the story, takes place in winter. The first chapter, titled “A White Horse Escapes,” introduces us to some of the main characters: Peter Lake, the thief; the Short Tails, a criminal gang who are chasing Peter Lake through the city; and the white horse. The horse escapes his stable in Brooklyn and heads down the snowy streets to Manhattan.
And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city’s hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water, but dreams and time.
In a while, the horse saves Peter Lake from the pursuing Short Tails and their leader, Pearly Soames, and they begin their adventures.
The action can be neck-snappingly fast, and you need to hold onto your hat if you don’t wish it to be blown away. Helprin uses the device of the “cloud wall” to indicate instances of time-travel, and if someone is caught in its embrace, they may find themselves in another century. Peter Lake is a cat-burglar by trade, and in trying to break into the home of the Penn family, he meets their consumptive daughter, Beverly; she falls in love with him, and takes him with her family to their second home in Lake of the Coheeries. This town can only be found by those who know how to get there, and it seems to be a backwater, not touched by the ravages of time … living in its own little pocket. Well, Peter Lake ends up marrying Beverly, who dies shortly thereafter; Peter Lake disappears.
No Renaissance engine belching fire or hurling stone could keep pace with even one white clap of a New York winter, and winter there clapped as endlessly as a paddlewheel on one of the bit white boats slapping across the lake in seasons gone by. Battalions of arctic clouds droned down from the north to bomb the state with snow, to bleach it as white as young ivory, to mortar it with frost that would last from September to May”.
[the lake] lay there almost laughing at its own perfection. There was not a ripple, streak, or bubble to be seen. The terrible wind and the incessant castellations of foam had been banished and leveled bu the fast freeze of heavy blue water. Not a flake of snow skidded across the endless glass, which was as perfect as an astronomer’s mirror.
The drift wall was a pile of snow that stretched from mountain to mountain across the solidified river. It was steep, a thousand feet high, and shrouded at the top by a rumbling mist that devoured itself and regenerated, blooming like time-lapsed roses.
Winter abounded and exploded. Always the season of testing and extremes, it made some people euphoric and others suicidal; it split granite boulders, tree trunks, and marriages; it tripled the rate of winer romances; brought back sleds and skis; and chapbooks about Christmas in New England; and it froze the Hudson into a solid highway.It even froze half the harbor.
Near the end of Winter’s Tale, the Short Tails find their way into Lake of the Coheeries and wreak havoc. It becomes necessary to destroy the town and it happens. (Much like when Aslan destroys Narnia, when evil gets in.)
Winter’s Tale is a story of time travel, redemption, triumph, love, death, and the city. Mostly, the City. Open the cover, and strap yourself in for a wild ride, and a beautiful one.