Life in Mattagash, Me., is not so funny anymore. The youngsters who were absurd, hormonal and packed with scattered energy in Cathie Pelletier’s first two novels — “The Funeral Makers” and “Once Upon a Time on the Banks” — are worn-out, their children are sick, their husbands abusive and their parents senile and bossy (a wicked combination). Money is scarce, gossip plentiful, and outdoors the first blizzard of a six-month snow cover is smothering the town. The slightly cockeyed adults of the first two books are in even worse shape. They’re either dead or fighting a futile holding action against thankless children and the St. Leonard nursing home.
In “The Weight of Winter,” Ms. Pelletier has written some powerful stuff. Fans who want the same book three times may be vexed at first because the hilarity-to-tragedy ratio has been flip-flopped in this one, but then fans who demand repetition deserve to be vexed. The laughs are still here, just mixed in with a beautiful understanding of characters who — on the surface, at least — don’t seem worth understanding.
Most of her Maine natives are mean and stupid. They go for exposed flesh with the savageness of children, yet Ms. Pelletier won’t allow us to dismiss them. These people are living out patterns established 150 years ago, paying for the sins of great-grandparents who are also granduncles, fifth cousins and sometimes great-great-grandparents on the maternal side. As in all isolated, inbred towns where every social and economic detail is controlled by weather, nobody forgets anything. When Charlene Craft offends a Laurel-and-Hardy gossip team, we are treated to every faux pas in the Craft family tree, from an illegitimate baby at the turn of the century to a recent attempt at the ultimate Mattagash betrayal — moving to Connecticut.
These days, there seems to be a rush on Chekhov ian tales set in small towns buried by neck-deep snow and 30-below-zero cold. Tom McGuane, Louise Erdrich, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, James Welch and Carolyn Chute (not to mention myself) have all explored the psychological effects when people are trapped together for six or more months with no colors other than black, white and shades of gray. The form finally hit the mainstream on television’s Alaska-based “Northern Exposure.”
Routines get elemental at 45 below, and nobody can make the page exude cold better than Cathie Pelletier: “By nine o’clock, the snow lay packed upon the earth, thick with cold, with the tonnage of its own weight. The trees stood stunned above their roots, beaded with shards of frost, while the river was at work with its silent process of freezing over.”
Here’s a theory on why the literary turf once dominated by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor has moved north: air-conditioning. Life in Southern towns is no longer ruled by weather. Laughter-among-the-suicides books simply don’t work in towns with malls.
Ms. Pelletier uses weather like a pro. She sets the tone with snow, develops metaphors with snow, advances plot with snow; snow becomes an entity as complex and cruel as any alcoholic family. From the first page, when Amy Joy Lawler watches snowfall cover names on her mailbox, to the last page, when snowfall obliterates names on tombstones in the local graveyard, the novel constantly reminds us that individuals are merely passing through, taking on roles that history and weather created a long time ago.
The action of “The Weight of Winter” is fairly simple. A number of families or extended families try, each in its own way, to cope with hopeless situations. Everyone adopts his or her own desperate defense — from humor to running away to dreaming to self-inflicted death — and everyone basically botches life. The people who don’t die come out blinking and stunned by a fate they can’t understand. Amy Joy reaches a quiet affirmation that unrequited dreams are the best kind and there’s no place like home, even if she’s “wearing her heavy snow boots and not a slick pair of ruby slippers.”
As a bonus, “The Weight of Winter” serves up a truly memorable character, the kind who wakes readers at 4 A.M. and demands, “Think about me.” This is 107-year-old Mathilda Fennelson, who has outlived one husband, one lover, eleven children and the only way of life she knows. She has decided the world has nothing to offer, so the time has come to retreat into memories. And what beautiful memories they are.
Ms. Pelletier’s sentences are as sharp and unique as snowflakes when Mathilda describes her life before World War I. Mathilda Fennelson alone among the characters doesn’t view the northern Maine environment as a hostile force to be battled and survived. Amy Joy accepts and appreciates its beauty, but to her winter is a suffocating weight that at best can be slept through to reawaken in spring. Most of the others simply hate snow. Even though Mathilda lives in her brain, without sensory perceptions, she has become an integral part of her surroundings.
Cathie Pelletier has a strong voice. She writes powerful scenes, creates people we ache for and a world we believe in. At the end, after smashing the dream of every character — the bar owner, the lumberjack, the gossips, a veritable pack of single women and widows and, saddest of all, a doomed 12-year-old — after all that, she gives her characters one last gift: hope.
All of which is moving and important, but after reading Stephen King, Carolyn Chute and now Cathie Pelletier, I’ve come to a conclusion: I would not live in Maine for all the Guggenheim grants in creation.
BMX - Biking
BMX bikes are a special kind of low bike, with smaller wheels than normal, that can be used for racing. They are designed to be very light weight but also very robust, as well as streamlined for speed. They are also known for being easier to perform tricks with than normal bikes.BMX stands for bicycle motocross, which refers to the origin of the sport: children saw motocross races on the TV in the ‘70s and wanted to emulate them. Since they had no motorbikes of their own, they used their bicycles to race around similar dirt tracks to the ones they had seen. Today the sport is notable for being one of the few sports that is taken part in almost exclusively by the under-10s. Although there are a few older professional BMXers, most good ones move on to other cycling or motorcycling sports.Among children today, BMXes remain one of the most popular kinds of bikes around, even if they do not compete in competitions, and BMX magazines are some of the biggest-selling hobbyist magazines. This was a surprise to many, as the sport was considered pretty much dead in the ’80s and early ‘90s, only to undergo a dramatic revival in the mid-‘90s that is still going on now.BMX is now one of the range of extreme sports like skateboarding and snowboarding, and similar tricks can be performed with the bikes to the ones the boarders do. The sport of Freestyle BMX was invented to allow BMXers to concentrate on doing tricks in skate-parks instead of racing, and has since arguably outgrown the popularity of BMX racing altogether – this is the style that the most famous BMX bikers, Mat Hoffman and Dave Mirra, compete in.