Book review | Wolf Winter

By Robert Pisani

25 December 2015, 7:44am
I spent the first nine years of my life on a Metis settlement in the province of Manitoba, Canada. For the uninitiated, a settlement is a stretch of land owned by the Canadian government but run by a band (in our case it was the settlement’s local council). If you want to be blunt we lived in the middle of nowhere surrounded by expanses of land, bordered by forests.

A Northern Manitoban winter is a fearsome thing. The sky turns gray by 3pm and becomes black by 5pm, usually accompanied by fierce winds which sting, not to mention the killer patches of ice and the thig- deep snow. Those are the good days.

A Northern Manitoban summer is just as bad - swarms of mosquitos, midges and horseflies become thirsty for blood, they are difficult to avoid, and after the occasional summer thunderstorm the vampiric qualities of these beasts increase a hundredfold. Then there’s the added confusion of the sun setting at 10:30pm.

The reason I’m mentioning this bout of nostalgia (in spite of the treacherous weather, they were great times) is because the setting of Cecelia Ekback’s debut novel, Wolf Winter, is reminiscent of my childhood. It’s also one of the best mysteries I’ve read in the past year.

The year is 1717 and a Finnish family emigrates to a mountain village during the summer. Trouble is already starting as the father finds a disemboweled neighbor in a field. Later on the family also find out that the towering Blackasen mountain is a place where evil deeds have taken place, which involved some children who have disappeared.  Maija, the wife, decides to uncover these dark mysteries in the hope that there is a rational reason why her neighbor was killed and children have been abducted. As this is the summer, the family is suffering from plagues of mosquitoes.

Since this is 1717, the Church still has a stronghold on society and the newly arrived village priest has been trying to integrate himself in the village with varying degrees of success. He too wants to help Maija solve these mysteries but mainly so that order is restored, thus avoiding the Bishop transferring him to another village.

Winter arrives and things just get worse. Not only is the village afflicted with malevolent snowstorms but Maija’s husband Paavo has to leave the family in order to trade goods and the youngest daughter, Dorotea, contracts foot rot as a result of the cold weather while eldest daughter Frederika is acting possesed.  

As Maija starts to learn the dark secrets of the village coupled with the bleak, harsh landscape and Blackasen looming overhead, she begins to remember her past life and tries to overcome the problems she encountered.

Essentially Wolf Winter is a multi-layered mystery. There are red herrings, surprises and clever plot twists, which do equal a page-turner. More importantly though is Ekback’s writing. She captures the desolation and horror of living in the middle of nowhere with little form of help. There are moments of terror as Maija attempts to solve a mystery, battle with the environment, upkeep a sick family and struggle with her personal demons. This is raw writing with some moments of beauty among the constant ugliness. If you’ve never experienced frostbite, heaps of snow and the dark creepiness of a January winter, then Ekback’s writing will evoke it. 

Ekback does not take the easy way out and things are not as they seem. Due to the different plot threads, Ekback keeps the reader in suspense, adding new dimensions to the threads until the last sentence, when the reader realizes how Ekback manages to pull off such a complicated plot and tie it up deftly.

A Wolf Winter, as the villagers call it, is when winter is so savage that it brings the wolves out to hunt prey that is not part of their diet. It is a winter that releases the inner beast and unleashes our insecurities and mad instincts. Eckbak’s novel reflects winter’s paranoia and manages to be an immersive experience.