THE WINTER PEOPLE by John Ehle
Kirkus Star

THE WINTER PEOPLE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

It's the Thirties in the North Carolina backwoods, where a richly timbered area is divided chiefly between the Wright and Campbell families--clans whose enmity has by now taken on a nearly genetic dignity. And Collie Wright, 23, has had an infant son of secret paternity. Is the father her own close brother Young? Or is it Young's friend Cole Campbell, the baby of the Campbell tribe? For a while, that question becomes unimportant. . . because one night a man and his small daughter--widower/clockmaker Wayland Jackson and Paula, from Philadelphia--lose their way and come to the house where Collie lives alone with her baby. Collie takes them in, a love eventually forms, and a small family is created--one that even Collie's brothers (Gudger, Milton, Young) acknowledge by inviting Wayland along on a funny, misadventurous bear-hunt. Harmony is broken, however, when Cole Campbell--now revealed as the father of Collie's son--arrives one night, drunk, claiming rights upon both Collie and the child: there's a fight; Wayland dunks Cole into a freezing winter stream (leaving him alive); but Cole dies of drowning that same night when Gudger Wright, full of hate because Cole seduced Collie, declines to save him. And the next morning the fierce Campbells arrive to claim the body, vowing revenge--revenge which Collie forestalls by making a penultimate sacrifice. Does the story seem familiar? It should--because it partakes of the territory of myth and racial memory. Indeed, Ehle (The Changing of the Guard, The Journey of August King) provides scenes here--the fight, the Campbells' en masse arrival, the women laying out the corpse, the Wright men meeting to decide which of them will take the blame for Collie's death--which have the sort of out-of-time tribalness that you find in the late works of Eudora Welty. And each moment is done perfectly, quirkiness holding back clichÉ--especially wonderful is the absent-minded dialogue, full of offhand color and complexity--while the title stays resonant: these people, seemingly beyond place, could be Celts or Mongols or Greeks, making bargains more intimate and primal than those expressed within clock-time. A flue book, then, intensely traditional fiction in both senses of the word: rich and haunting and a source of great, deep pleasure.

Pub Date: March 10th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row