How hot is it? My Dad once said it was so hot that he saw the chain on his bicycle slither off into the woods like a snake to try and get cool. I stole that line and used it in a Sentinel column I wrote years ago about weathering the heat by reading about cold, snow and ice.
“It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees.”
Brrr. The first lines of childhood favorite, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, always make me shiver. Part of it is Aiken’s evocative writing, but part of it is also anticipation of what lies ahead — two brave cousins, a wicked governess, and wolves howling in the darkness of the snowy English countryside. What fun! I happened to pick up my paperback copy while moving some books this morning and read it straight through. The resulting goosebumps reminded me of other favorite literary chillers.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a magical kids’ book as Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, opens his eyes to a mysterious snow-blanketed world, a “Midwinter Day that that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and he somehow knew, for centuries before that.”
And who can forget the icy evil of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” or the White Witch ruling over Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass has snowy vastness and armored polar bears.
Want more adult fare? Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale is set in a fantastical New York City where a Brooklyn milkhorse realizes he can fly, a 19th-century village is lost both in winter and in time, and a mayoral election is won on a promise to restore snow.
Charles Dickens excels at cold, bleak houses and cities, as well as merry Christmas scenes, as in The Pickwick Papers. The Russians — Pasternak, Tolstoy — are old hands at deep freezes. Martin Cruz Smith’s chilly thrillers include Gorky Park, where blood freezes on the snow, and Polar Star, where a killer tracks his prey across the ice caps of the Bering Sea.
The great blizzard of 1888 howls through “Wickedness,” the lead-off tale in Ron Hansen’s Nebraska. In short vignettes, he chronicles the story’s heroes and fools, from a schoolteacher who shelters her charges in a haystack to a teen who walks across a railroad trestle over the Missouri River. “Every creosote tie was tented in snow that angled down into dark troughs that Addie could fit a leg though. Everything else was night sky and mystery, and the world she knew had disappeared.”
The snow “is general all over Ireland” in James Joyce’s delicate story “The Dead” from Dubliners. “He watches sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” The flakes are purely imaginary in Conrad Aiken’s dreamlike tale “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” representing a young boy’s retreat from reality.
This time last year I was cooling off by standing on a glacier in Alberta, Canada and gazing at snowy mountain peaks. Now I’m hibernating from the Florida sun with the AC on high and my book of Robert Frost poems. I will watch the woods fill up with snow. Then I’ll bid farewell to a young orchard. “Good-by and keep cold.”