Happy Confluence of Winter Books

January 31, 2010 at 10:52 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, God, Gorgeous Writing, Literary spaces)

It is 10 below zero here today, and I just finished the perfect book to read when it is this cold. It also occasioned one of those happy confluences when a favorite children’s book suddenly appears in adult form and is equally good.  I have probably read Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink 30 or more times. Of course I had discovered Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons and then Two Are Better Than One and Louly by third grade, but then when I discovered Winter Cottage, something about it made it my favorite of her books.

I finally had a name for the reason after I read The Poetics of Space in college, and recognized what Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity” or the sheltered, small, hidden space that allows the spirit to roam freely. Bachelard’s contention is that such phenomena are ontological and that we experience them when a writer is able to express them for us. I experienced intimate immensity when I read Winter Cottage.

The protagonist is Araminta Sparks, called Minty, who is on her way to Chicago with her sister Eglantine (Eggs) and their father Pops. It is the midst of the Depression, and their car breaks down on a back road they have accidentally turned onto. They find a summer cottage on a lake and “break in” to spend the night. Because they are hauling all the canned goods from Mr. Sparks’ failed grocery store, they eventually decide to winter there, planning to leave “rent” for the landlords whom they do not know.

Moving on to North of Hope. I had discovered the Loyola Classics series in Fall of 2008, and after I bought and read In This House of Brede, I made it known that I would like several more from the series. My lovely husband bought me three for Christmas last year, including North of Hope because Andy knows I like books about hardship, cold, Native Americans, and Catholics. Besides, look at that cover. Is that not lovely?

When the weather turns cold and nasty here, I usually pull out The Shipping News or Alistair MacLeod’s Island to make me count my blessings, but this year I picked up North of Hope. (I would also suggest Peace Like a River in this grouping). Jon Hassler is new to me, but I am now going to run out and read more of his books. He was a high-school English teacher and then taught college, later becoming Writer in Residence at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

North of Hope focuses on Father Frank Healy, a priest having a crisis of not so much faith, as hope. He returns to his hometown parish to sort this through and is reunited with his best friend/almost girlfriend from high school Libby, who, though not religious, is similarly facing a crisis of hope as she deals with her manic-depressive daughter, drug-dealing doctor husband, and her own rekindled passion for Frank. These two spend a winter supporting each other through some true tragedies, and find in each other’s Platonic love and support, the means to find hope once again.

Reading Winter Cottage on a cold day is like drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows. Reading North of Hope was like drinking very strong espresso with maybe a shot of whiskey: adult, realistic, true, bitter, and yet still warming. The epistle from this morning’s Mass readings was from First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a woman, I put aside childish things.” As a woman I have not totally put aside childish things; I still read the Little House books and I still read Winter Cottage. As a child, these books were an escape into another world, a rural, character-building place I wanted to be. And when I reread these books now, they do rekindle that romantic, adventurous feeling that inspired me as a girl.

But now I LIVE in that world, where things are rural and character-building, and I cherish the tales of adults facing these hardships with courage and integrity. Frank Healy is my grown-up Minty Sparks. The other time I had a similar book confluence was when I discovered Willa Cather’s Prairie Novels and had found the adult equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Alexandra Bergson is now my role model as much as ten-year-old Laura was.

In addition to the tough weather-beaten and life-beaten heroes I sought, I was also looking for books that created that “intimate immensity” of a small, warm, protected place in the midst of the snow and the chaos and the hardship. I think even as a kid I kind of knew that life could be a tough journey, and I girded my loins by finding heroines who took it on bare-handed and adult characters who provided safety and warmth. There is Pops at left, making his famous pancakes. That kitchen is warm, and light, and smells good. At right is Pops playing chess by the fire. It’s cold outside, and Minty’s mom is dead, and they have no home or money, and yet they have made a place of safety.

In North of Hope that place of safety and warmth is much more abstract, in the way that adult things are. One character dies when his car goes through the ice, another is hospitalized in a mental clinic, another comes close to throwing herself in front of a train. There are no places of comfort for many of these characters. Frank has to find that place inside himself, as do the other troubled characters in the book. Most of them feel North of Hope itself, and hope IS that warm place by the fire. The hard thing in adulthood is creating that Winter Cottage metaphorically. And within.


  1. Leah said,

    I am so happy to know that Carol Ryrie Brink wrote more than Caddie and Magical Melons. I loved those two books as a child – in fact I think Caddie might be on my book shelf. I can’t wait to order these two in from my library’s website. I felt like making hot chocolate and getting comfy reading your blog Maureen. I grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada (north of North Dakota) and though I haven’t been back in the winer since we moved in 1996 to the balmy West Coast of Canada, I love a good nostaligic winter read!

  2. Liz in Virginia said,

    Hello, again — my internet soul-mate! Laura Ingalls Wilder –> Willa Cather? The connection, once again, is just plain freaky.

    Thanks for these book recommendations — I know I’ll love them.

    — Liz

  3. Sue Dickman said,

    Okay, now I’m going to go to the library and get out Winter Cottage, which I’ve never heard of, even though I read Caddie Woodlawn multiple times as a kid. Meanwhile, even though I have lots of grown-up books on my reading list and in a pile next to my bed, I’m re-reading Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, the one winter book in the Swallows and Amazons series (which I never read as a kid and only knew about through Ann!) It makes me feel a bit better about winter, reading about building igloos and taking expeditions across frozen lakes and such. (And there’s lots of cocoa involved as well!)

  4. Leah said,

    Just finished North of Hope and loved it. Thanks for the great read – I would never have found it on my own. I couldn’t put it down!

  5. The Girl from the Ghetto said,

    Maureen, I know you are so busy, but you should post your good news here!

  6. Josie Ray said,

    This is beautiful. I must give all of this more thought. I found Poetics of Space on Archive.org and am planning to read it…but does knowing too much of WHY things are magic destroy the magic? Because if it does…I would rather NOT know the why’s and remain the child…because there is also, “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and I would hate to have to block out all that philosophy in order to get back in. 🙂 and to enjoy an awesome book like Winter Cottage like a child. (It always astonishes me when…someone analyzes the personalties and writings of someone like Lucy Maude Montgomery…once you can analyze, you can no longer enter in. You’ve grown up. Think of the child chasing a butterfly through a meadow, versus growing into a biologist and dissecting one in a lab…you cannot learn DEEPER truth about the butterfly than the child already knew.)

  7. Josie Ray said,

    Having said all of that, in my sleeping dreams, I repeatedly go to a wonderful upstairs room in my late grandmother’s home that never existed in her one-story house. I think I would like to read Poetics to try to understand that. Or perhaps I should just accept and not analyze….

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