Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

 

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.

There are 19 comments.

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  1. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    I remember Peter as a master mechanic, who not only from talent but also because having loved in multiple periods was able to fix an enormous machine that nobody else could remember how to fix or how it worked.

    “One winter night, Peter Lake–master mechanic and second-story man–attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty , the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the affair between a middle-aged Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.”

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Ray Kujawa (View Comment):
    It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.

    Gotta have a hobby.

    • #2
  3. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    I love Mark Helprin’s writing. I think my favorite is still Refiner’s Fire. Paris in the Present Tense seems like a cousin or nephew to that early one and the stories in The Pacific are just so beautifully written. Thanks for writing about Winter’s Tale. It’s a great read aloud book!

    • #3
  4. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Agree.  Thanks for reminding me.  It’s about time I read it again.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Whew!  It looks like nobody caught my egregious editing error, now corrected (or maybe was too polite to mention it).

    • #5
  6. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    Ummm, big double paste is still there… @RushBabe49

    (A fellow Winter’s Tale lover.)

    • #6
  7. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    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.

    The first book of Helprin’s I read was A Soldier of the Great War, and I thought it was wonderful. Then I tried to read Winter’s Tale, and couldn’t get through it. I think when the giant ocean liner showed up in the Hudson River, I said “that’s it.” I believe the comment above was the key. All reality or all fantasy I could deal with, but the mash-up didn’t work for me. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever started that I couldn’t finish. Another one was Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, mainly because nothing happened.

    • #7
  8. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Editing error corrected (there were 2 paragraphs twice).  My first husband couldn’t handle the fantasy/reality thing either, so he couldn’t finish it.

    • #8
  9. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    My favorite novel, bar none. I read it first back in college the 1980s at the advice of a girl I was interested in. (Isn’t that the way? Those ladies can get men to do anything if the infatuation is strong enough.) It was my first exposure to that sort of magical realism, and I loved it.

    I’ve read it at least three times, and each time I think I get more out of it, but if you asked me to tell you what it was about, I’m not sure I could explain it properly. It’s about so many things.

    Though broadly speaking, I’d say that the main idea in the novels is that if one could step back and view the world from the timeless perspective of eternity, one would see that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” 

     

    • #9
  10. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    The canvas that the story is painted on is a paean to New York.  I’m betting that Mr. Helprin doesn’t feel that warmly toward the city today.

    • #10
  11. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Helprin seems to return to many of the same themes in his novels. I think In Sunlight and in Shadow (which I think is the weakest of his novels) is similar in how fondly he depicts New York. But both Winter’s Tale and In Sunlight and in Shadow highlight the criminal element. The latter novel, being the realist one, somehow makes the criminals come off as more evil. (Pearly Soames and the Short Tails are kind of cartoony in Winter’s Tale, even though they’re brutal killers.) And in both novels, justice requires sacrifice. But in the latter novel, that sacrifice is much harder on the reader, again because it’s the more realistic novel.

    Which is to say, he probably still loves New York, but he’s probably more realistic about it. (Plus, age will do that to you.)

    • #11
  12. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    This is the only thing I’ve ever read by the author, which is kind of an odd statement considering how much I enjoyed his use of language.  I found it musical, if that’s not too strange a word.

    • #12
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Thanks to @rushbabe49 for closing out the month strong! I invite you to take a quick look at a great month’s worth of posts loosely organized around the theme “Winter of our Discontent.”  This fine review of a novel I must put on my reading list follows pieces on poetry and an original work of short fiction yesterday by @caroljoy. And that’s not the half of it. Thanks to all who made January brighter with their contributions!

    February’s theme is “Advice:” our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits. As everyone has a piece of advice for someone, and everyone has a tale of good or bad, wanted or unwanted, advice, the calendar is rapidly filling.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #13
  14. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    I may have that on my Kindle, though unread.  I read A Soldier of the Great War and loved it.  I highly recommend that book.  I love Mark Helprin but his novels are so long.  

    • #14
  15. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Also, if you ever get to read Helprin’s short story “Monday,” set in the aftermath of 9-11, it’s incredibly moving.

    • #15
  16. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Tee hee!  Calling the PTB Editors!  It looks like you put back in, one of my duplicate paragraphs that I thought I had deleted!

    • #16
  17. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok  I’ll read it. You’ve persuaded me.

    I saw the movie and wasn’t sure what to make of it.  But then I read a review of Paris in the Present Tense, I think over at NRO. It included a few passages, as you included above. I thought Damn, that is some writing. So I read it. (Actually I listened to it on Audible – read brilliantly by Bronson Pinchot.) It was beautiful.

    But it also involved an emotional commitment that took me away from my multi-tasky life that many other things faded for a while. And the glow lasted, lingered.

    I have A Soldier of the Great War teed up on my ipod, and I keep circling it, sticking a toe in and then pulling back, because I’m so busy at work blah blah blah.

    But you have convinced me.

    My girlfriend is German, and she loves me to read to her in English.  She has read this already, but perhaps I will pitch it as the next thing I read aloud to her.

     

     

    • #17
  18. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):
    I saw the movie and wasn’t sure what to make of it.

    The movie covers about the first 20 percent of the book and the last 5 percent. And doesn’t do it very well. It leaves out tons of stuff, and inserts this “judge” character who is basically the devil. There is no analogue to him in the book. (Unless you count Jackson Mead, who it is suggested is a fallen angel. But even Jackson Mead has his own agenda and sort of ignores everything else going on in the book.)

    • #18
  19. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    When I heard they were making a movie of the book, the first thing I thought of was that they were going to make the main theme “Peter and Beverly”, the Love Story.  Yep, that’s what they did, even though Beverly was really a minor character.  The Horse had more mention than Beverly did!  And Peter Lake was a short, fireplug-type guy, not tall, thin. and good-looking.  Winter’s Tale is probably too complex to make a good movie of.  You just have to read it.  I did especially notice the analogy of the destruction of Lake of the Coheeries vs. Narnia, and saw the Short Tails as the personification of Evil.

    • #19

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