by John Smolens


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Internationally acclaimed, Cold takes us deep into a harsh, frozen world, where love, greed, and the promise of a second chance compel six people toward a chilling and inevitable reckoning.
In the frozen reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, fierce winter storms hit without warning. The white opacity of one such blizzard allows Norman Haas to walk away from his prison work detail. Dangerously close to freezing to death, Norman is given shelter by Liesl Tiomenen, a middle-aged woman who lives in a house she and her late husband built in the woods. Armed with a rifle, she tries to turn him in, but when they set out on snowshoes, she suffers a fall, allowing him to flee again. Thus begins Norman’s journey back to his past, back to the woman he loved who betrayed him, back to the brother who helped put him away, back to a dangerous web of family allegiances, deceptions, and intrigue.
After finding Liesl injured and abandoned in the woods, Yellow Dog Township’s sole full-time law enforcement officer Del Maki pursues Norman through a storm of mythic proportions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611862416
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 331
Sales rank: 796,984
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Smolens has published ten works of fiction, including Quarantine, The Schoolmaster’s Daughter, and Wolf’s Mouth. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By John Smolens

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2001 John Smolens
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-241-6


Liesl Tiomenen saw the man from her kitchen window. It was snowing so hard that he was barely visible, standing at the edge of the woods. Staring toward the house, he kept his arms folded so his hands were clamped under his armpits. He wore a soiled canvas coat and blue trousers, but no hat. His stillness reminded her of the deer that often came into the yard to eat the carrots and apples she left for them.

Liesl went out into the shed and took Harold's .30-.30 Winchester carbine down off the rack, then opened the back door, holding the rifle across her chest. The man didn't move. The north wind chilled the right side of her face; her fingers on the stock felt brittle. He was young, not more than twenty-five, and she could see that he was shivering.

"All right," she said. "You can come inside."

He began walking immediately, his legs lifting up out of the deep snow.

"Slowly," she said. "And put your hands down at your sides where I can see them."

He stopped and watched her. Then he dropped his arms to his sides and continued on toward the house.

When the door opened, he had expected an old man or woman. Something about the house suggested that retired people lived there, the way it looked simple but well maintained. There were recent asphalt shingle patches on the roof, the wood storm windows had been freshly painted, and at least a cord of firewood was stacked against the shed. It was the smell of chimney smoke that had drawn him toward the house.

But it was a woman, maybe in her early forties. She was tall, and her long blond hair was tied in a thick braid that hung over her left shoulder. Her hands were large, and one thumb appeared to be smeared with mud. When he reached her, she pointed the rifle at his chest and he stopped. She stared at him a moment, her blue eyes showing no panic or fear, only determination. He tried to quit shaking, but it only made it seem worse.

"Okay," she said, stepping back into the shed. This close he could see that there was something odd about her mouth; her lips seemed out of kilter. When she spoke there was a kind of sag to the right side of her face, as though the muscles were lax. "Kitchen's that way."

He stepped into the shed and opened the door to the warm, heavy air of the house. There was the smell of burning wood, and something else that he couldn't identify — a pleasant scent of damp earth. It made him light-headed, and his shaking only got worse.

He fell to the floor, his palms slapping on the wood, and didn't move.

Liesl walked around him, watching his face. There was a small cut beneath his eye, and twigs and pine needles were entangled in his short black hair. She poked him in the shoulder with the rifle, but he didn't respond. He wasn't faking. She went to the stove and turned on the burner beneath the teapot. From the pocket of her flannel shirt, she took out a cigarette. She held the tip to the flame for a moment, then raised the cigarette to her lips and inhaled.

When he opened his eyes, she was standing at the wood-burning stove, smoking a cigarette, the rifle tucked beneath one arm and angled down. Not exactly pointed at him, but not far off, either.

"Can you get up?"

"I think so."

"Then sit in the chair by the radiator and keep your hands on the table."

He watched her raise the cigarette to that mouth, and then the tobacco glowed. He inhaled through his nose, and the smoke helped revive him. For a moment she looked pleased as she reached in the pocket of her flannel shirt. She took out the pack of Winstons and tossed them onto the kitchen table.

"Thanks," he said. There was a book of matches beneath the cellophane. His hands were shaking so bad that the first match waved out; the second he had a hard time holding steady to light the cigarette. When he got it lit, he watched the match flame burn down to his fingertips. After it went out, he said, "Nothing. Can't feel a thing."

"Rub them," she said. "Rub them together."

He did, working the palms slowly against each other.

"When'd you break out?"

"Two days ago. Musta walked fifty miles."

She smiled crookedly around her cigarette. "You're not twelve miles from the prison."

"I bet I walked fifty."

"Why do you think they put prisons in the Upper Peninsula? You think you're the first one to try to walk away? They usually turn themselves in — you're lucky you haven't already frozen to death."

The teakettle whistled and he nearly jumped up from his seat.

She did everything with one hand, hardly taking her eyes off him. When she placed the mug of tea on the table, she said, "Have you eaten anything?"


"You drink that. I'll feed you, but first I got to be able to put this thing down."

"I won't do nothing."

"If you had done nothing, you wouldn't be in that prison." She opened the shed door, reached around the jamb, and took something that rattled off a hook. It was a chain, the kind used for towing, coiled up like rope. She unlocked and removed the padlock, then put the chain on the kitchen floor by his feet. "Now, you wrap that around your middle a couple times, then run it round that radiator foot." Putting the padlock on the table, she said, "Then lock it."

He chained himself to the radiator. As he picked up the mug, the heat from the tea stung his fingers.

She leaned the rifle in the corner by the stove and began to make him some eggs. Three scrambled eggs, with dark rye toast. When she wasn't watching him she listened to him; he was quiet and he hardly moved. When he finished drinking one mug of tea, she made him another.

She sat down across the table and watched him eat. There were acne scars on his neck, and his nose reminded her of boxers who have had the cartilage removed. She was surprised that he ate so slowly, that he didn't just eat like a dog. But he seemed to have trouble swallowing.

"Been so long since I ate," he said when he was halfway through the eggs, "my stomach hurts. But they're good. They just go down hard." He glanced out the window frequently, toward the driveway, and she could see when it registered in his eyes. He tried to conceal it, but the next time he looked at her he was shy, like a child with a secret.

As she lit another cigarette she looked out at the snow where the drive was — the banks were over six feet high, and there was at least two feet of new snow in the drive. "My plowman came night before last," she said, "but it's been coming down so fast he can't get up the hill now. It's been like this all winter."

"Last year, after we set the record for snow," he said, pushing away his empty plate, "we all thought this year couldn't be so bad."

"It's worse," she said. "We're ahead of last year. At this pace they say we might get three hundred inches."

One corner of his lips tucked in, creating a dimple. "My friend Bing was right. Said all people do outside is talk about the weather." He picked up the pack of cigarettes on the table and tapped one out. "You can't get out of here and the police can't get in. How you going to get me back?"

"That's what you want, right?"

"I stay out there any longer, I'm dead." He touched the cut beneath his eye a moment. "I know what you're saying. Guys inside tell you about other escapees, how they walk away, then give themselves up because of the woods and the weather. I didn't believe them."

"You're from downstate."

"No, I'm a Yooper. From North Eicher."

"Oh sure."

"That's why I thought I could walk out. I know the winters up here. But I just couldn't get out of the woods. And the snow, it just kept falling."

She went to the sink, soaked a washcloth, and gave it to him. "You better clean that cut."

He daubed at his face, wincing and only smearing dirt. "It's fine."

"Right." She came around the table and took the washcloth from him. "Hold still." She put one hand on the back of his head and cleaned the cut. He stared up at her and didn't move, though when she touched the wound she could feel the muscles in his neck tighten as he tried to pull his head back against her hand. "How'd you do this?"

"Saw some coyotes on a ridge. Maybe they were wolves? Hard to tell from a distance through the trees. Then I tripped over a downed tree under the snow."

When she was finished she looked at the wound a moment before letting go of his skull. His clothes smelled bad, and his hair was wet and dirty. "Where'd you think you were going?" she said as she went back to the sink to rinse out the washcloth.

"Don't know. Into Marquette and steal a car, I guess. Got lost instead."

"I guess you did." She turned and leaned against the sink, drying her hands on a towel. He smoked and gazed out at the snow. "You been in long?"

"Three years, three months, eleven days."


"Bunch of stuff."

"Like what?"

"Like assault. Shot a guy, too." He drew on his cigarette, then crushed it out on his plate. "Guess I had a bad day. I used to do a lot of stuff, you know? Get really fucked up. My brother, Warren, he has connections down in Milwaukee, and he kinda has a business going over our way. I just lost it."

"What happened?"

"Well. I had a girlfriend, my fiancée. Say I beat her."

"Did you?"

"Sort of." He touched the cleaned wound with his fingertips. "I don't remember everything too clear."

"Who'd you shoot?"

"There was a hunter named Raymond Yates."

"This Raymond Yates, he and your girlfriend were up to something?"

He shook his head. "Wasn't that simple. No, she was up to something all right, but it wasn't with Yates. He's older. Noel — that's my girlfriend — she was up to something with my brother, Warren."

"That's why you lost it."

"Guess so."

"How long you in for?"

"Ten. But I coulda got out after seven, maybe."

"You couldn't wait another few years?"

"Guess not. Now, when I go back, I don't know what I'll get." He turned his head from the window. "What happened to you?"

"Car accident. My husband and daughter were killed."

"I'm sorry."

"Are you?"

"Yes, I am."

She went to the phone on the wall and picked up the receiver. There was no dial tone. She hung up.

He was watching her. "Dead?"

"I'll try again in a while."

He leaned back in the chair and the chain rattled. "So you live way out here alone?"

"Harold and I built this house together, when we were your age. It was about all I had afterwards."

His eyes wandered toward the door to the living room. "There's a smell — it's not the smoke, but something else." A puddle of melted snow had formed around his boots.

She picked up the rifle and put the padlock key on the table. "Come in here and take those wet things off."

He unlocked himself and put the key next to the plate; then he coiled the chain up, gathered it against his stomach, and led her into the living room, which opened onto a large studio with skylights. He looked at the shelves of clay sculpture and pottery, the wheel, the workbenches, the kiln. "You can smell it way out there in the woods." He bent over and began unlacing his boots. "What if that phone doesn't come back?"

"We can always walk to the store down at the crossroads."

"How far is it?"

"A ways."


"You ever wear snowshoes?"

"Not in a long time."

"We could ski out, if you'd rather."

"The snowshoes'll be fine."

She stepped into the bedroom to get him some wool socks. When she looked up at the bureau mirror she saw that he was asleep on the couch, cradling the chains on his stomach.

When he awoke he lay beneath a wool blanket. His feet stuck out the other end; she had put wool socks on him while he slept, and his toes were slightly numb but warm. "I thought I'd never feel my feet again."

She was sitting across the living room, the rifle resting against the arm of the stuffed chair. "You stayed out there much longer and you wouldn't have."

"I tried not to think about the cold, but it's all you think about. Same as being inside, really."

"What do you think about, inside?"

He gazed at the ceiling a long time, then he smiled. "I know what most of the guys would say."

"I do, too."

He turned his head on the armrest of the couch. She had put on a green sweater that made her breasts seem full. He couldn't take his eyes off them. When he raised his eyes to her face, she watched him with an even stare. He realized she was accustomed to men looking at her that way, that it was something she had endured for a long time. It appeared to bore her.

"Bing, he read a lot and he told me stuff. He had a theory: If you think about how some people have it worse, you won't find your situation so bad."

"Not a bad theory," she said. "What's he read?"

"All sorts of stuff. Lot of history. Tells me about battles and conquerors. For a while we were into tortures. Bing found a whole book just on torture techniques. The Inquisition, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler."

"Wasn't he the one Dracula's based on?"

"That's right," he said, staring at the ceiling again. "As a boy he had been a hostage of some sultan in Constantinople, and he was butt-fucked a lot. So later, when he's this fierce military leader he scares the hell out of his opponents because he impales his captors. He used a long, thin needle — greases it, then shoves it up their ass until it comes out their mouth. Did it in a way that it would take days to die. He'd do thousands of people at a time and stick them in the ground outside his camp to ward off the enemy. Like a forest — thousands on a skewer."

He turned his head on the armrest. She was staring very hard at him, and her cheeks were flushed. "And Bing thought it took your mind off prison?"

"Yeah, but it only works for a while. You actually have to concentrate on that sort of thing, and it gets old. Out there in the woods, it didn't work after a while. I tried to think of everything, believe me, but I was just too cold."

"So much for theories."

He couldn't tell by her voice whether she was making a joke or being serious. Her eyes were just as steady as when she'd first opened the shed door.

"When you came outside with the rifle and pointed it at me, what would you have done if I had, you know, tried something?"

"What would you have tried?"

"Take the gun away."

Turning her head, she seemed to be searching for something in her studio. "I'm not sure. Suppose you had gotten the gun from me, what would you do?"

"Unload it."

She continued to stare at her shelves of pots and clay animals — eagles and deer and bears, mostly — so long that he began to wonder if she'd heard him. "Well, you didn't, and I didn't, and it stays loaded." She looked at him. "Don't lose sight of that fact."

"I'm not dangerous or anything."

"Not now you aren't."

They didn't talk for a while. He stared at the ceiling. What he had thought were shadows he realized was smoke residue from the kiln. The wall and ceiling surfaces all had faint smudges built up around the slightest raised edge, whether it was a small imperfection in the wall, along the edge of molding, or around a light switch plate. It gave flat surfaces relief as though someone had taken a pencil and shaded everything carefully, first using the side of the lead point, then smearing the gray with a moist fingertip. On the wall by the door to the bedroom there was a small rectangle of white where a photograph had hung. His eyesight was good, and he could even see the small black hole where the nail had been driven into the wall. It was like her life here: a white rectangle surrounded by not so white, two shades so close that you don't notice the difference right away.

"You try the phone again?" he asked.

"Twice while you were asleep," she said. "Still out."

"What're we going to do?"

"You feel like you could walk out there again?" she asked. "This time properly dressed and with snowshoes."

"I'm not in any hurry to get back."

"I suppose you're not."

"It's nice here. Warm. I see why you stayed after — I see why you live here."

"We have to go soon if we're to get out before dark."

She gave him some of Harold's clothes: long johns, corduroy pants, a second pair of socks, a flannel shirt, a heavy sweater, good insulated boots, gloves, parka, a wool hat that could be pulled down over the ears. She let him use the bathroom to change, telling him that the window had been stuck for years.

When they were both dressed they went out to the shed and buckled on the snowshoes. Then they started down the drive, which was a wide, snowbound path through the woods. He led and she followed with the rifle. He walked slowly, with his head down, concentrating on each step.


Excerpted from Cold by John Smolens. Copyright © 2001 John Smolens. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Cold: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cold is perhaps Smolens' best known and most successful book. Although I have liked almost all of John's books, this one, about a sheriff in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in pursuit of an escaped prisoner is a particular favorite and considered by many to be his best.
milibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Liesl lost her husband and daughter in an automobile accident during a blizzard. Another snowstorm years later brings back those memories. This storm will also change her life forever when she allows Norman, an escapee from the Marquette Prison, to warm up in her home and a series of unforeseen events is set into motion. In the process of taking him to the sheriff in town, Liesl falls, and Norman abandons her to the cold. She is found by the sheriff, and the manhunt for Norman continues. As the cold permeates a U.P. winter, so does the tension in this thriller. Norman returns to the scene of the crime as love, greed, and hope for another chance in life lead the characters back to their pasts as well as towards a future reckoning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cold opens with Liesl, a middle-aged widow, living in the woods, who finds a runaway from the prison near her cabin during a blizzard. Norman is a trustee who walked away from the prison during a blizzard and now finds himself lost in the woods and so cold he needs to seek shelter. Fortunately, Liesl has a rifle, so she allows Norman in the house to get warm and change his clothes, and then they set out together on snowshoes to the nearby gas station so she can turn him in. On the way to the gas station, Liesl has an accident, and Norman must decide whether to get her help or to take the opportunity to continue his escape. To tell more would be to ruin the story, and the suspense is so great I can¿t bring myself to do that. I read the entire novel on a hot Sunday in July the cold descriptions helping to distract me from the heat as I eagerly turned the pages. Smolens depicts the U.P. accurately, and while he fictionalizes most of the locations, save for references to places in Marquette like the Delft, he uses effectively the U.P.¿s remoteness and the cold and the blizzards for character motivation and to display the great storytelling potential of the region. The novel reminded me a bit of the film Reindeer Games starring Ben Affleck, about a man released from prison who gets involved in a casino robbery in Upper Michigan. But I thought Cold was far better, less sensational, and more realistic and suspenseful. It would make a splendid film, but since the movie hasn¿t been made yet, read the book. You won¿t be disappointed. - Tyler R. Tichelaar, author of Iron Pioneers, The Marquette Trilogy: Book One
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a fast read and I would only recommend this book if you were snowed in or flying on a long hour trip. Although, I liked how he wrote the story in different characters' point of views but it could be confusing to some people. Also a lot of obscene language that I found unnecessary at times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A classic story of a blossoming relationship playing out against an old lover's triangle. I found the relationship between the sheriff and Liesel to be much more interesting than the two brothers fighting over an underachieving woman like two little children fight over a toy. Unfortunately, the book focuses more on the trailer-park antics of drunken, drug using convict brothers rather than the sheriff and his new found romance. I believe Mr. Smolens could really write a good descriptive story if he didn't have to pepper it with four letter words and sleazy situations. I'm not clear as to whether this is his own idea or something his publishers believe will sell books. In either case, this tactic sold one book, but will not sell any more to me.