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Winter's Tale

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

There is magic in this book.

Winter's Tale is a fantasy, but the nature of its story and the type of magic displayed is different than what most people think of when they hear those terms. This is not Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are no wizards (well, maybe one), no witches, warlocks or sorcerers. It is more like a myth or fairy tale, a dream-like exploration of an alternate reality, an allegory for the concepts of love, devotion, courage and freedom. The characters may be archetypes, but they don't always act or develop in the way you expect. It is an alternate reality, no doubt of that. New York is the predominate setting, but it's a different city than the real world has ever seen. The story begins near the end of the 19th Century, yet among its characters are a weird group of backwoodsmen (or make that backmarshmen), known as the Baymen, that inhabit the Bayonne Marsh just across the harbor from Battery Park. Since in our world the city of Bayonne and its harbor were established in the 1860s, this is clearly a different time and/or place. It is never made clear where the Baymen came from, whether they are Native Americans or just lost souls living behind a cloud wall that keeps their existence secret from the metropolis across the water. That cloud wall has mysterious properties, possibly it is a barrier between two separate worlds, or maybe two (or more) separate times.

There is another place secreted away from the rest of the world, known as Lake of the Coheeries. It isn't on any map, and unless you are one of the chosen few who live there, or are lucky enough to know someone who does, you wouldn't be able to find it. Protagonist Peter Lake gets to visit only because his fiancé Beverly Penn's family has their second home there. Her father is Isaac Penn, former whaling captain, now newspaper mogul. Peter Lake was raised by the Baymen and then sent away from the marsh when he was twelve, to take his chances on survival in the city. He is succored by the Reverend Mootfowl and trained as a machinist and mechanic, and later is recruited by notorious gang leader Pearly Soames, for whom he becomes a burglar and thief, his foremost safe-cracker and second-story man. Soames gets too greedy though, and Peter Lake turns against him when Soames' plans threaten something dear to him.

Peter Lake meets Beverly accidentally when he breaks into the Penn's New York home, thinking it empty. She had remained at home when the rest of the family departed for Lake of the Coheeries for their Christmas break. Beverly suffers from tuberculosis, and has already outlived the prognoses of several doctors. Another element of fantasy we are asked to accept is the proverbial love at first sight, and that is a stretch considering the widely divergent backgrounds of the two characters. But, Beverly is beautiful, so it is natural that Peter Lake would be attracted to her, and I suppose her illness compells her to fall for the man who selflessly shows her compassion rather than pity. Peter Lake's entry into her life gives Beverly renewed vigor and optimism. They travel to Lake of the Coheeries so she can present him to her family. Surprisingly, he is accepted into the fold, and shortly thereafter they are married.

Beverly was fond of watching the stars at night, and she had a theory that the constellations were not just random shapes given meaning by primitive man, but actually the representation of angelic beings. Even she might have been surprised that she was correct, and that at least two of them have fallen to Earth and are desperate to return to the heavens. Perhaps because of her illness, or maybe in spite of it, Beverly is a very empathetic person who sees in Peter Lake a kindred spirit. This is likely due to how he was raised by the Baymen. His experiences in New York would have hardened the hearts of most men, but he retains a lot of sympathy and empathy for the victims of poverty and neglect that he sees all around him. Unfortunately, what promised to be an idyllic existence is tragically not meant to be, as Beverly succumbs to her illness a few months later. In his grief, Peter Lake becomes careless, and Pearly Soames and his henchmen pick up his trail. They pursue him relentlessly through all the boroughs of the city, but Peter Lake always manages to escape their clutches. The reason for that might be something I haven't mentioned yet. The first scene of the book is set during this period, and in it Peter Lake is rescued by a giant white horse, whose name he later learns is Athansor, possibly one of those angelic beings mentioned earlier. This scene is prior to when Peter Lake meets Beverly Penn, and Athansor is the horse that pulls the sleigh on their first trip to Lake of the Coheeries.

Athansor exhibits great strength and stamina, with tremendous leaps that have some witnesses swearing they saw him fly. In their escape from Soames, Peter Lake and Athansor disappear behind the cloud wall, never to be seen again. Or, almost never. The story then jumps to the end of the 20th Century, and the characters that populate this part are descendants of some we met in the first half. Harry Penn, Isaac's grandson, still rules over the family publishing empire, although he is nearing the age of 100. Virginia Gamely is the daughter of a young girl Peter Lake met on his first visit to Lake of the Coheeries. Peter Lake himself reappears, rescued from the freezing waters on the outskirts of New York harbor, but he suffers from amnesia. Shortly afterwards, Athansor is seen falling into the sea off the shores of Montauk. What is the process which propelled them nearly a hundred years into the future, and why, and why did they not reappear together? Are they destined to figure into events at the turn of the millennium, and in what way? This is the point I'll stop with my synopsis. I won't even mention others who have been transported through time, one of whom might also be one of the fallen angelic beings. It is a magical story, but I would ruin a lot of that if I gave too many details.

By the way, you may be wondering why I've continued to use the protagonist's full name, but that's exactly how it is in the book. He's never just Peter, certainly not Mr. Lake, but always Peter Lake, as if those two words themselves are part of the magic. But the true magic is in Helprin's word play, at times reverent, at others quite comical, but always gloriously vivid. It would be possible to do a complete review simply by quoting numerous passages, but you would need the context of the narrative and the characters to know why they are relevant. It's not a perfect book, however, and although I still enjoyed it on my second reading (after nearly thirty years), this time around there were several places where I felt he was losing track of the narrative, introducing characters or situations that didn't go anywhere. The character of Hardesty Marratta is a key figure in the climax, but he wasn't introduced until almost halfway through the novel, and the chapters dealing with his journey from San Francisco to New York were quite unlike what had come before. His short-time traveling companion, Jesse Honey, was more like a character I would expect from Tom Robbins, or maybe Kurt Vonnegut, completely different than anyone else in the book. I kept expecting him to pop up again further along the narrative, but he never did. The uncertainty of the cloud wall, if that is what actually is responsible for the forward movement through time, would likely turn off some readers. The impression is that Peter Lake is someone special with a destiny, but the appearance of several others from the past seems illogical, unless it is implied that the fates of heroes and villains are inextricably tied together, always to be at odds with each other.

Given the title, you would be right to assume that weather plays a big part in the story. There are only a couple of scenes that take place in the spring, summer or autumn. The majority of events occur in the deep cold of winter, with the snow and wind as important as any of the characters. There are also a few elements that set this apart from any other fantasy you may have read, or truthfully most any novel. It is not predictable. Several things that you might expect to happen never do, and one thing in particular that does happen is sure to surprise you. Perhaps Helprin was saying that fantasy and dreams are a lot like real life, unpredictable, never developing or ending the way we expect or want. While some of this is frustrating, on the whole it is uniquely refreshing. As well as being an atypical fantasy, Winter's Tale is also spiritual in ways different than that term is usually applied. It is not about God or the Devil, but rather the elements of love and compassion, but also greed, fear and hatred, that resides in the soul of us all. The main question is, which will we chose to follow?

"No choreographer, no architect, engineer, or painter could plan more thoroughly and subtly.
Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer
he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the
approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that),
but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations
terrifying and benevolent - a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare
awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be.
There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery.”


Related link:
My review of Winter's Tale, the movie.


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