Nora Walker is all alone in the world. Her whole family are rumored to be witches, which sets her apart from other kids her age. Her grandmother is dead, and her mother is something of an absentee parent. And now that winter has set in at Jackjaw Lake, all the tourists are gone, leaving behind only Nora in her cottage and the residents of the nearby camp for delinquent boys. Nora’s isolation increases still further when a storm drops four feet of snow on the area, cutting off the roads and knocking out the phone lines.
Everything changes when Nora ventures into the oldest, spookiest part of the woods on the full moon and finds Oliver Huntsman, a boy who went missing two weeks ago from the camp. She helps him recover from hypothermia and takes him back to the camp, but in the process learns that there is more to the story than just one boy getting lost in the woods. Another boy died the same night, and Oliver has no memory of what happened. Nora begins to suspect that Oliver played a role in the death, even as she is also becoming more attached to him.
Winterwood (2019) is an atmospheric tale, told with beautiful (if sometimes a bit overdone) prose that makes the isolation and the cold at Jackjaw Lake truly palpable. If you read it during a real-life cold snap, which I did, you might feel like you will never be warm again! The snow doesn’t work as well; it seems to come and go depending on the needs of the plot. It keeps anyone from getting into or out of town, but doesn’t seem to hinder anyone from walking or running around the lake.
There are other things that seem glitchy as well — for example, there is one Walker ancestor whose history suggests she didn’t die until 2021, but the novel appears to be set in the present day, and Nora has never met this person. Additionally, the middle of the book sags a bit, seeming to go around in circles for a while.
I was able to guess one of the big twists, because several characters behaved in ways that made no sense unless that twist was true, but I didn’t guess every detail about it. This plot element and Nora’s latent powers come together at the end for a mostly satisfying conclusion.
The scuttlebutt on Goodreads is that Shea Ernshaw made some changes to Winterwood after the ARCs were sent out, and so the finished version will be somewhat different from what I read. I’m curious to see whether the published novel smooths out some of the rough spots. It’s worth a try if you’re looking for a book to curl up with on a cold night. (Also, there’s a cute wolf-dog.)
Shea Ernshaw’s novel has loads of atmospheric prose (verging on overly poetic at times) which effectively conveys the bone-deep chill of winter and the suffocating closeness of the Wicker Wood, but it also has a too-circular plot relying on coincidence and the sheer thick-headedness of its teenaged cast of characters, sucking momentum out of the mystery-heavy storyline. The setting lacks consistency; if a massive load of snow is blocking the only road out from the mountains and into town, it doesn’t follow that random strolls around a lake or to various houses would be so casually undertaken. And when characters constantly wander off just so that others will be left alone or be forced to look for one another, it’s hard to get a sense of urgency over the mystery of one missing and one dead boy is going to be resolved. There’s some good witchcraft and family lore here, and the creepy forest is definitely creepy, but overall Winterwood was an underwhelming experience for me.