Gimbling in the Wabe – The Best and the “Worst” of Winter Reading

As promised, this Gimbling will take on two specific titles.  They have to do with my recommendations on books for winter reading.  Both are fantastic books.  One of them is my absolute favorite book to read when it’s cold and wintery outside.  The other one is a book that is so intense with snow and ice that I could not recommend reading it when there was any patch of white at all in the world outside.

The first I will put forward is the one book that I could not recommend for winter reading.  While I would trippingly call it “The ‘Worst’ Book for Winter Reading”, it’s not that it is a bad book.  Quite the contrary – it is a book that is gripping, well written, and completely, totally, absolutely terrifying.  I wrote about it on this website once before, in the LitStack Staff Pick segment on “Characters We Really, Really Hate”.  Its story line encompasses a real event:  the doomed Franklin expedition to chart the Northwest Passage of 1845.  The book?

The Terror by Dan Simmons

It would have been bad enough to read the harrowing account of two ships braving the frigid The Terrorwaters of the Northern Territories; eventually the ships become icebound and all 129 men, including famed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin perish.  But add to this a horrifying, unknown terror in monster form preying (and toying with) the men already struggling for survival, and you have the makings of a chilling tale that will literally freeze the blood in your veins.

While I highly recommend this book – which takes historical fiction to a whole new level – I would not in any way, shape or form suggest reading it during any month where there is any chance of snow, ice, cold or even a hint of such in the reader’s tactile world.  It is, frankly, just too terrifying.  Even a person like me, who enjoys and even embraces winter, should think twice about reading this hyper-real tale when the world outside mimics the environment of the book.  Once you close it for the night, if there is any icy wind blowing or any chill in the air, the horrible monster will be lurking right around the corner, I guarantee it.  No, save this volume for the sweltering summer, when you will need the heat and the sweat and the hot summer breeze to remind you that it is, after all, only a story.

Well, okay then, if The Terror is a wonderful book that should never, ever be read in the winter months, what is it that I would most readily turn to when the world outside is white and downright cold?

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Absolutely.  The 1936 classic tale of the antebellum South.  The hot Georgia sun – whether Gone With The Wind beating down on a festive plantation barbeque with young ladies floating like butterflies across wide, green verandas, on sweltering along rows of cotton ripe for the picking, stifling in the young, energetic growing city of Atlanta, or adding to the squalor and misery of those left in the dust of a retreating army – is as much a player in the story as it is the setting for the most marvelous of imaginings.

It was a savagely red land, blood-colored after rains, brick dust in droughts, the best cotton land in the world.  It was a pleasant land of white houses, peaceful plowed fields and sluggish yellow rivers, but a land of contrasts, of brightest sun glare and densest shade.  The plantation clearings and miles of cotton fields smiled up to a warm sun, placid, complacent.  At their edges rose the virgin forests, dark and cool even in the hottest noons, mysterious, a little sinister, the soughing pines seeming to wait with an age-old patience, to threaten with soft sighs:  “Be careful!  Be careful!  We had you once.  We can take you back again.”

The environment and the land of Georgia and the deep South molds and shapes the characters that people the pages of this classic tale in ways direct and subtle.  It is an ever-present factor in every aspect of the story.

Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends.  Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

There is no touch of winter in these pages, just a balmy chill or a sudden coolness to the air when desires and plans are thwarted.  Storms may rage and bring despair and a constant, draining beating to the soul and spirit; heat may be brutal and debilitating, but these do not whisk away breath or steal life.  Other factors contribute to that, instead.

Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows under the car shed.  Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning.  Everywhere, swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere was blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men.  The smell of sweat, of blood, of unwashed bodies, of excrement rose up in waves of blistering heat until the fetid stench almost nauseated her.  The ambulance men hurrying here and there among the prostrate forms frequently stepped on wounded men, so thickly packed were the rows, and those trodden upon stared stolidly up, waiting their turn.

But as hot as the sun may beat down, the hearts and passions of the characters burn just as brightly!  Not only the fiery Scarlett and debonair Rhett, but all of them, in their own way:  the honorable Ashley Wilkes and the good-hearted Melanie, flighty Miss Pittypat, blustering little Gerald, solid and glowering Mammy, steady Ellen O’Hara – admirable or not, contained or out of control, virtuous or full of ulterior motives, they all have a deeply entrenched fire that may play out in very different ways but nevertheless pulses close to the surface.

And what a time in our American history, told from such a unique and involving viewpoint!  I always felt that Gone with the Wind taught more people about the affects of the Civil War on the South than most of the textbooks in our schools.  People may remember the “fiddle-de-dee’s” and the sweeping staircases, the crinolines and fans and the “damn” that shocked the world, but they also remember the dream that could not endure, the burning of Atlanta, and how drastically the world changed after the War.

Yes, I realize completely that our modern sensibilities have pointed out the lack of objectivity surrounding slavery and the treatment of black people, and the washing of the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.  I realize and endorse that Margaret Mitchell’s book falls uncomfortably short when dealing with these subjects as we know them today.  But that does not deter my admiration for the effort or the story.  I still love, love, love Gone with the Wind, and it remains the only book that I have read from front to back at least ten times.  Especially in the winter.  Especially when I need to be completely and utterly transported back to a time and a place where there was grace and gentility, carefree vitality and a beauty never to be seen again, even if it was imperfect, and only a dream remembered.

Ah, well.  It’s been a nice couple of days here, sunny with unseasonable highs.  I haven’t really felt the need to bundle up, to pull in, to curl up with that good book.  But tonight the temperatures are supposed to drop dramatically, and the forecast for tomorrow is potential freezing rain, some fog in the morning, changing to snow and possible ice.  Sounds awful, and I pity those people that have to be out in the elements.  Me?  I’m not going to think about it.  I’ll think about it tomorrow.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

~ Sharon Browning

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