Cover of Snow. Jenny Milchman, Ballantine Books, 2013. 326 pp. ISBN: 978-0-345-53421-7. Hard cover, $26.
Jenny Milchman’s Cover of Snow, whose pages haunted me days after I finished the book, reminds me of something author Doris Betts said years ago. “The best writing is memorable.” It leaves an indelible impression. In my experience few crime writers do leave in our minds scenes and characters we will never forget, but the best do. Jenny’s book does.
I am not usually drawn to thrillers, and I’d say that Jenny stretches all the sub-categories of crime fiction. It isn’t a conventional mystery, but it does have one central question the main character, Nora Hamilton, is trying to answer. Not who but why? Why did her beloved husband, Brendan, kill himself?
As in a thriller the reader is given knowledge of the harm that has been done and is still being done behind the scenes before Nora learns about it, hence we fear for her safety, and the suspense is racheted up. All the characters, however, are fully realized and fully human. There are no good and evil stereotypes here. The evil in the book is something we are all capable of if we feel desperate enough, but this doesn’t excuse it. It makes it more terrifying.
Set in the small town of Wedeskyull, New York, in the Adirondacks in mid-winter, where Nora Hamilton is a relative newcomer, whereas her husband had grown up there and works for the town police, the couple are living in Brendan’s Aunt Jean’s house. Brenda’s mother, Eileen, also lives in the town and accuses Nora of being responsible for her husband’s death.
Nora’s plight is not unlike Antigone’s. Unwittingly, she is taking on the whole power structure in which she finds herself. Every attempt she makes to understand why Brendan committed suicide is blocked; people she believed she could trust turn against her. Her situation is reminiscent of any human struggle toward knowledge or justice when the odds are so stacked that those in power are willing to do anything to keep their secrets, including killing.
I’m also reminded of that myth of the three sons sent out into the world with the goal of chopping down a certain magical tree. The first two brothers fail. The third brother is more attentive to the landscape. When he sees the old man with his beard stuck in a tree, calling for help, he helps him. He also shares his bread and ale with an old woman who begs it of him. These people help him so that he easily fells the magic tree.
Nora pays attention to the people in her landscape whom many would have ignored: an autistic auto mechanic, a newspaper reporter who wants her to help him remodel an old house, an old woman, her husband’s aunt. In their various and unexpected ways these people, as well as other clues Nora notices and puzzles over, lead her through a chilling, terrifying landscape.
This plot has its roots so deep in Western civilization’s archetypes that no wonder its suffering heroine and her persistence against odds sticks in the mind.
I also think of Henry James’s advice re fiction writing, that the most powerful plot involves a heroine who is intelligent enough to feel intensely but blind enough to suffer in the situation she finds herself in, and then is “ministered to” by a fool. Here, more than one fool.
The snow and the cold are like characters, too, and people keep going into the cold without enough protection. Nora, of course, has no real protection of any kind. She is alone, keeps losing what she does have, and yet people one wouldn’t have predicted come to her aid quite ingeniously.When novelists I admire like Louise Penny, Julia-Spencer-Fleming, and Nancy Pickard, give the book their rave reviews, I can only add: Amen. Read it.
I had the pleasure of having Jenny and her husband Josh, children Sophie and Caleb, at my house for dinner back in February when she was on her seven-month book tour and in central North Carolina. They came early to see the farm, though in February this year there wasn’t a lot to see. The hens were interesting, and the children enjoyed gathering the eggs. We had daffodils and crocuses; we could see the beginnings of the buds on forsythia and peach trees. The children ate everything: my chicken stew from my hens, the fruit salad, the sweet potatoes, the bread, and they all enjoyed the apple pie from my own canned apples. They also made me drawings, about the farm, and Sophie wrote on hers: “Farming is peace on earth.”
Jenny’s road to publication took her eleven years, and in the process she wrote and revised many books. By the time Ballantine accepted Cover of Snow, she was well-known among mystery and thriller writers because of her support to other writers, especially debut writers (she hosts many of them on her Suspense Your Disbelief blog on her website) and independent bookstores. She started a program called Take Your Child to a Bookstore, so when it was time to persuade bookstores to take her book and give her a reading, they already knew Jenny.
These days writers don’t have as many bookstore tours as once, especially debut writers. The burden is on us to get our books known and sold, but sometimes it’s hard now to get that local audience to a bookstore. Her publisher supported her, but it was her dream and determination that put her on the road with her family to visit independent bookstores and read all over the country, January to July this year. If she comes near you, don’t miss the experience. Jenny is friendly and supportive of other writers, and so it’s easy for us to turn and support her.