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Kirkus ReviewsNoted Scottish poet, novelist, and playwright Brown (A Time to Keep, 1987, etc.) celebrates the dark season of the year in the Orkney Islands with 18 always luminous if sometimes lifeless stories.
Suffused with old Norse and Christian beliefs, the tales are all set in the northern islands once ruled by the Vikings. Many characters, like the stubborn farmer in "The Paraffin Lamp," who uses the electric light only when he needs to fill his old lamp, still observe the traditional rituals, especially those of the Yule season, that ease the passing of winter. Inured to hardship and frugality, the islanders must contend with weather that is always changing ("one day is wind and flung spindrift, the next is loveliness beyond compare"). And this protean weather is sometimes center stage, as storms and blizzards dramatically take lives: In "A Boy's Calendar" and "Dancey," two babies, the sole survivors of ships wrecked by terrible storms, are adopted by childless women and become islanders. In other pieces, the weather is simply part of the fabric of daily life: Men and women race to harvest crops before the rain comes, or to harvest fish before a blizzard strikes. Three notables are "Lieutenant Bligh and Two Midshipmen," "The Woodcarver," and "A Boy's Calendar," in which, respectively, Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, visits the islands and signs on two local men; an imaginative husband, who finds refuge from his acerbic wife in drink and carving, becomes an unwilling cultural icon; and a young boy describes the round of work and celebration in a typical year. Stories such as "St. Christopher" and "The Road to Emmaus" give the saint's life and the Crucifixion a local setting, while "A Crusader's Christmas" recalls the Viking era.
Cumulatively, an affectionate but muted portrait of a far place where both heart and spirit are strong, though the days are often short and bitter.