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The Frozen Thames

The Frozen Thames

5.0 1
by Helen Humphreys

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In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

So begins this breathtaking and original work, which contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and


In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

So begins this breathtaking and original work, which contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and illustrated with stunning full-color period art, The Frozen Thames is an achingly beautiful feat of the imagination…a work of fiction that transports us back through history to cast us as intimate observers of unforgettable moments in time.

Whether we’re viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames…these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Between 1142 and 1895, the Thames froze solid 40 times, and Humphreys (Wild Dogs) captures the magic and hardship created by these deep freezes in a series of elegant vignettes. The book opens with Queen Matilda's snow-cloaked escape across the frozen Thames from Oxford Castle, and subsequent snapshots capture everything from fox hunts to the merry Frost Fairs that set up on the solid river. The river is also witness to the Black Death, a window tax and a hearth tax, a crumbling London Bridge and the Luddite uprising. The elements are wonderfully evoked, with coldness so intense that birds fall frozen from the sky, ale freezes solid in its jugs, and trees split apart "as though struck by lightning." In a style meditative and poetic, Humphreys crafts a compelling portrait of the role something as seemingly simple as ice has in people's lives and imaginations. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A dreamy, poetic evocation of winters past. As far back as records have been kept, the river Thames, which flows through Oxford, Reading and, of course, the heart of London, has frozen solid only 40 times. For each of these, Canadian poet and novelist Humphreys (Coventry, 2009, etc.) offers a single, delicate vignette, taking delicious poetic license with both grand events and the minutiae of history. The stories begin with the earliest record of a freeze, in 1142, when Queen Matilda made a desperate escape across the ice from her long-besieged castle in Oxford. They continue up to 1895, when ice floes as thick as seven feet crowded the river but it was clear, writes Humphreys, that "the Thames would never, will never, freeze solid in the heart of London again." (Causes: the new London Bridge, which allowed the water to flow more freely, and the dredging of a deeper river channel.) Between these historical bookends the author presents 38 more vivid, intimate sketches of people confronted with the cold, all related in the present tense. A wife marooned indoors by the frost in 1784 passes the time by perfecting her recipe for jugged hare. Two children escaping the plague in 1666 emerge from their quarantined house into a "cold and beautiful" world. In 1789, a sudden thaw kills a husband and wife who good-naturedly permit a ship's captain to attach his vessel by cable to their house's main beam. A miller's son revives a flock of frozen birds with the warmth of his breath in 1809. In each anecdote, Humphreys expands and improvises on a fleeting moment from a life long past. The characters, often unnamed and many captured in first-person monologues, have a presence far more substantial thanthe 1,000-odd words allotted to them. Images and themes recur throughout: the Frost Fairs erected upon the frozen river, the groaning of the ice. Forty vibrant protagonists give depth and variety to this magical collection. Agent: Bill Hanna/Acacia House
From the Publisher
“Humphreys has an impeccable command of imagery, and her prose finds strength in its subtlety.”
Publishers Weekly

“Delicate and incandescent . . . [Humphreys’s] descriptions bristle with nuance, and scenes are pared down to their bare essence.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A small, beautiful and highly original book . . . one that is both eccentric and exquisite. It’s a lovely gift for thoughtful readers.” – Edmonton Journal

“This is a splendid book, full of memorable and vivid imagery.” – Globe and Mail

“Most curiously wonderful and splendidly written . . .” – The Sun Times

“Each of its episodes has within it the capacity to do what Humphreys did with the entirety of The Lost Garden.” – Quill & Quire

“Powerfully poetic . . .” – NOW magazine

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times.
These are the stories of that frozen river.


I look for you along the banks of the river, where the great fires have been laid. Each fire a pyramid of coal, taller than the tallest man, and blazing with a fierceness that seems to match my need to find you.

You’re not there, by any of the fires, nor at any of the tables that have been set upon the ice for this enormous feast. You promised you would come, and yet you haven’t, and so I cannot settle, walk along one bank to the end of the coal fires, and then back along the other bank.

Here at Reading, the Thames has frozen so thickly that it will hold up the pyramids of burning coal without a quiver. It will hold up the long tables laden with food, at which sit all the poor and weak in the town. For one night only, for this night, we are to be treated to a great feast by the Abbot and the Grey Friar monks. The brothers themselves are acting in our service for the evening, fetching us food and drink when we so desire it.

I would be enjoying this, but I am too worried about whether or not you will arrive as promised. I know your family have been ill. You might have stayed to tend to them.

I am standing on the ice, a little way out from the fires so that I am not blinded by the flames, so that I can still see you if you come walking from the north end of the river. I am wearing a new black cloak I have fashioned from a blanket. It is not the green cloak you are used to seeing me in, and I worry that you will not recognize me, so I am determined to recognize you first. I don’t like the new law that has been passed this year, decreeing that only the nobility are permitted to wear coloured clothing, and that each of the colours is coded with meaning. As the lower orders, we are only allowed black or grey. They can have red to signify their superior position, blue to show their fidelity, yellow to flash hostility, pale grey for sorrow, and green for love.

It seems an impossible law to enforce, and yet I have complied, and in my acceptance I show my fear of disobeying.

All around me, at all the tables set upon the frozen river, there is great merriment. The monks have provided each table with a hogshead of ale, and some of the merriment is caused by the generous taking of this ale.

And suddenly, there you are. You walk towards me over the ice, the fires throwing you into shadow, lighting you boldly with each surge and ebb of flame. You have recognized me, even in the new cloak. You walk towards me without hesitation, and my body feels suddenly weightless, as though I could float up like a bird, look down upon this little stretch of ice with the orange puddles of light bleeding at the edges, and the black lines of the tables laid out in the centre of the river.

When you are almost upon me, I move forward so that I may clasp you in my arms, but you hold out your hands to stop me. You are also wearing a black cloak, and there is frost decorating the ends of your hair where it touches your face. Not frost, I realize with a start, not frost but frozen tears.

“What?” I say, and my breath unknots in the cold night air, drifts off into threads of smoke.

You pull back the sleeve of your cloak and hold your bare arm out for me to see the black boils that are pockmarked over your flesh.

The Black Death.

It seemed as though the plague had passed. For more than ten years people died. Every second house in London seemed affected. There were so many dead that they were just tossed into massive pits, piled one on top of the other with no ceremony or marker. The nobility fled to the country, and then, when it all seemed to be over, they came back and passed this law about the clothes. This is to keep us in our place because, with so many dead, the poor have become less so, have inherited money and property from those who have died.

You hold out your arm and I see the black spots, know that you probably already have the fever, that you will be dead in two or three days, and I cannot bear it.

All around us I can hear the sounds of people being happy — laughter and talking. I cannot remember this kind of happiness, not ever, and it seems so wrong that a moment so good could lie peacefully alongside a moment so bad.

If I touch you, I will be infected. You probably shouldn’t have come here, because you now carry the disease, and because it has most likely taken all your strength just to get here. But I am glad you kept your promise, and I am more than glad to see you. I don’t know how I can live without you, or if I will. It was only days ago that I last saw you, that I touched you. The plague could be bubbling under my skin as we stand here.

I lift my cloak so that you can see the lining, so that you can see what I’ve wanted to tell you. I have sewn pieces of my green cloak into the lining of this black one. Green for love, under the new law.

It seems strange that this is the end of the world, this scene of feasting and happiness, something that is so outside my usual days. But perhaps that is good, perhaps if I had to leave a world that was my own it would be harder.

You lower your arm and smile. You have understood. I step forward into your embrace and kiss you.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Helen Humphreys is the author of Leaving Earth, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the City of Toronto Book Award; Afterimage, winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; The Lost Garden, finalist for the CBC’s 2003 Canada Reads competition; and the forthcoming Coventry. Wild Dogs won the 2005 Lambda Award for fiction, was one of NOW magazine’s Top 10 Books of 2004, and has been optioned for film. Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Frozen Thames 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read