The New York Times bestselling author of Promise Not to Tell returns with a simmering psychological thriller about ghostly secrets, dark choices, and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters.
West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.
Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Jennifer McMahon is the author of six novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Island of Lost Girls and Promise Not to Tell. She graduated from Goddard College and studied poetry in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College. She currently lives with her partner and daughter in Montpelier, Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
The Winter People
By Jennifer McMahon
Random House LLCCopyright © 2015 Jennifer McMahon
All rights reserved.
Visitors from the Other Side
The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea
January 29, 1908
The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away--before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville.
I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil's Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack-in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lift the striped hood, you'll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing.
I recognized her at once--Hester Jameson.
She'd died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best.
Hester's father, Erwin, ran Jameson's Tack and Feed Shop. He wore a black coat with frayed sleeves, and his nose was red and running. Beside him stood his wife, Cora Jameson, a heavyset woman who had a seamstress shop in town. Mrs. Jameson sobbed into a lace handkerchief, her whole body heaving and trembling.
I had been to funerals before, but never for someone my own age. Usually it was the very old or the very young. I couldn't take my eyes off the casket, just the right size for a girl like me. I stared at the plain wooden box until I grew dizzy, wondering what it might feel like to be laid out inside. Papa must have noticed, because he took my hand and gave it a squeeze, pulled me a little closer to him.
Reverend Ayers, a young man then, said Hester was with the angels. Our old preacher, Reverend Phelps, was stooped over, half deaf, and none of what he said made any sense--it was all frightening metaphors about sin and salvation. But when Reverend Ayers with his sparkling blue eyes spoke, it felt as if he said each word right to me.
"I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you."
For the first time, I understood the word of God, because Reverend Ayers spoke it. His voice, all the girls said, could soothe the Devil himself.
A red-winged blackbird cried out conk-a-reee from a nearby hazel bush. He puffed up his red shoulders and sang over and over, as loud as he could, his call almost hypnotic; even Reverend Ayers paused to look.
Mrs. Jameson dropped to her knees, keening. Mr. Jameson tried to pull her up, but did not have the strength.
I stood right beside Papa, clutching his hand, as dirt was shoveled down on the coffin of poor Hester Jameson. Hester had a crooked front tooth, but a beautifully delicate face. She had been the best in our class at arithmetic. Once, for my birthday, she gave me a note with a flower pressed inside. A violet it was, dried out and perfectly preserved. May your day be as special as you are, she'd written in perfect cursive. I tucked it into my Bible, where it stayed for years, until it either disintegrated or fell out, I cannot recall.
Now, two weeks after her very own funeral, Hester's sleeper caught sight of me there in the woods, crouching behind the rock. I shall never forget the look in her eyes--the frightened half-recognition of someone waking from a horrible dream.
I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget-menots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl's ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.
I think I may have even played this game once with Hester Jameson.
I had heard whispers, rumors of sleepers called back from the land of the dead by grieving husbands and wives, but was certain they only existed in the stories old women liked to tell each other while they folded laundry or stitched stockings--something to pass the time, and to make any eavesdropping children hurry home before dark.
I had been sure, up until then, that God in his infinite wisdom would not have allowed such an abomination.
Hester and I were not ten feet apart. Her blue dress was filthy and torn, her corn-silk hair in tangles. She gave off the musty smell of damp earth, but there was something else behind it, an acrid, greasy, burnt odor, similar to what you smell when you blow out a tallow candle.
Our eyes met, and I yearned to speak, to say her name, but could only manage a strangled-sounding Hss.
Hester ran off into the woods like a startled rabbit. I stayed frozen, clinging pathetically to my rock like a bit of lichen.
From down the path leading to the Devil's Hand came another figure, running, calling Hester's name.
It was her mother, Cora Jameson.
She stopped when she saw me, face flushed and frantic. She was breathing hard and had scratches on her face and arms, pieces of dry leaves and twigs tangled in her hair.
"Tell no one," she said.
"But why?" I asked, stepping out from behind the rock.
She looked right at me--through me, almost, as if I were a pane of dirty window glass. "Someday, Sara," she said, "maybe you'll love someone enough to understand."
Then she ran off into the woods, following her daughter.
I told Auntie about it later.
"Is it really possible?" I asked. "To bring someone back like that?"
We were down by the river, picking fiddleheads, filling Auntie's basket with the curled fern tops, as we did each spring. Then we'd bring them home and make a creamy soup stuffed full of wild greens and herbs that Auntie had gathered along the way. We were also there to check the traps--Auntie had caught a beaver just two days before and was hoping for another. Beaver pelts were a rarity and brought a high price. They were once nearly as common as squirrels', Auntie said, but trappers had taken all except a handful.
Buckshot was with us, nosing the ground, ears attentive to every little sound. I never knew if he was all wolf, or only part. Auntie had found him as a pup, when he'd fallen into one of her pit traps after being all shot up by someone. She'd carried him home, pulled the buckshot pellets out of him, stitched him up, and nursed him back to health. He'd been by her side ever since.
"He was lucky you found him," I said after hearing the story.
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Auntie told me. "He and I were meant for one another."
I never saw such devotion in a dog--or any animal, for that matter. His wounds had healed, but the buckshot left him blind in his right eye, which was milky white. His ghost eye, Auntie called it.
"He came so close to death, he's got one eye back there still," she explained. I loved Buckshot, but I hated that milky-white moon that seemed to see everything and nothing all at once.
Auntie was not related to me by blood, but she cared for me, raised me after my own mother died giving birth to me. I had no memory of my mother--the only proofs of her existence were my parents' wedding photograph, the quilt she'd sewn that I slept under every night, and the stories my older brother and sister told.
My brother claimed I had my mother's laugh. My sister said that my mother had been the best dancer in the county, that she was the envy of all the other girls.
Auntie's people came from up north, in Quebec. Her father had been a trapper; her mother, an Indian woman. Auntie carried a hunting knife, and wore a long deerskin coat decorated with bright beads and porcupine quills. She spoke French, and sang songs in a language I never did recognize. She wore a ring carved from yellowed bone on her right pointer finger.
"What does it say?" I asked once, touching the strange letters and symbols on its surface.
"That life is a circle," she answered.
People in town were frightened of Auntie, but their fear did not keep them away from her door. They followed the well-worn path to her cabin in the woods out behind the Devil's Hand, carrying coins, honey, whiskey--whatever they had to trade for her remedies. Auntie had drops for colic, tea for fever, even a little blue bottle that she swore contained a potion so powerful that with one drop the object of your heart's desire would be yours. I knew better than to doubt her.
There were other things I knew about Auntie, too. I'd seen her sneak out of Papa's bedroom in the early morning, heard the sounds that came from behind his locked door when she visited him there.
I also knew better than to cross her. She had a fiery temper and little patience with people who did not see things her way. If people refused to pay her for her services, she'd call on them, sprinkle their homes with black powder pulled from one of her leather pouches, and speak a strange incantation. Terrible things would befall those families from then on: sicknesses, fires, crop losses, even death.
I tossed a handful of dark-green fiddleheads into the basket.
"Tell me, Auntie, please," I begged, "can the dead come back?"
Auntie looked at me a long time, head cocked to the side, her small, dark eyes fixed on mine.
"Yes," she told me at last. "There is a way. Few know of it, but those who do, pass it down to their children. Because you are the closest I will ever come to a child of my own, the secret will go to you. I will write it all down, everything I know about sleepers. I will fold up the papers, put them in an envelope, and seal it with wax. You will hide it away, and one day, when you are ready, you will open it up."
"How will I know I am ready?" I asked.
She smiled, showing her small teeth, pointed like a fox's and stained brown from tobacco. "You will know."
I am writing these words in secret, hidden under covers. Martin and Lucius believe I am sleeping. I hear them downstairs, drinking coffee and discussing my prognosis. (Not good, I'm afraid.)
I have been going back in my mind, thinking over how all of this began, piecing things together the way one might sew a quilt. But, oh, what a hideous and twisted quilt mine would be!
"Gertie," I hear Martin say above the clink of a spoon stirring coffee in his favorite tin mug. I imagine the furrow of his brow, the deep worry lines there; how sad his face must be after he spoke her name.
I hold my breath and listen hard.
"Sometimes a tragedy breaks a person," Lucius says. "Sometimes they will never be whole again."
If I close my eyes even now, I can still see my Gertie's face, feel her sugary breath on my cheek. I can so vividly recall our last morning together, hear her saying, "If snow melts down to water, does it still remember being snow?"
January 12, 1908
"Wake up, Martin." A soft whisper, a flutter against his cheek. "It's time."
Martin opened his eyes, leaving the dream of a woman with long dark hair. She'd been telling him something. Something important, something he was not supposed to forget.
He turned over in bed. He was alone, Sara's side of the bed cold. He sat up, listening carefully. Voices, soft giggles across the hall, from behind Gertie's bedroom door.
Had Sara spent the whole night in with Gertie again? Surely it couldn't be good for the girl, to smother her like that. Sometimes he worried that Sara's attachment to Gertie simply wasn't .?.?. healthy. Just last week, Sara had kept Gertie home from school for three straight days, and for those three days Sara doted on her--plaiting her hair, making her a new dress, baking her cookies, playing hide-and-seek. Sara's niece, Amelia, offered to take Gertie for the weekend, and Sara had made excuses--she gets homesick so easily, she's so frail-but Martin understood that it was Sara who could not bear to be without Gertie. Sara never seemed whole unless Gertie was by her side.
He pushed the worried thoughts away. Better to focus on the problems he understood and could do something about.
The house was cold, the fire out.
He peeled back the covers, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and pulled on his pants. His bad foot hung there like a hoof till he shoved it into the special boot fashioned for him by the cobbler in Montpelier. The soles were worn through, and he'd stuffed the bottoms of both boots with dry grass and cattail fluff, all layered over scraps of leather, in a futile attempt to keep the dampness out. There was no money for new custom-made boots now.
Blight had ruined most of last fall's potato crop, and they relied on the money they got from selling the potatoes to the starch factory to get through the winter. It was only January, and the root cellar was nearly bare: a few spongy potatoes and carrots, some Hubbard squash, half a dozen jars of string beans and tomatoes Sara had put up last summer, a little salt pork from the hog they'd butchered in November (they'd traded most of the meat for dry goods at the general store). Martin would have to get a deer soon if they were going to have enough to eat. Sara had a talent for stretching what little food they had, for making milk gravy and biscuits with a bit of salt pork into a meal, but she couldn't create something from nothing.
Excerpted from The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon. Copyright © 2015 Jennifer McMahon. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.
1. At the heart of the novel is the longing to be reunited with a loved one who has died. How would you respond to this possibility, even if you could only see your beloved for one week? What risks would you take to take to experience such a reunion?
2. What was it like to read Sara’s diary, alternating with scenes from other time periods? Did Sara’s words change your vision of the spirit world? Did her bond with Gertie remind you of your own experience with a mother’s love?
3. When Alice and her family inhabit Sara’s house and her land, how does that environment transform them? Do you believe that the history of a locale can influence your present-day experiences there?
4. Ruthie and Fawn have been raised to question authority and to live a non-materialistic life. What benefits and challenges does their upbringing give them when their mother goes missing? Ultimately, what did Alice try to teach her daughters about becoming fulfilled women?
5. Reread the excerpt from Amelia’s introduction on the book’s first page. How do Amelia and the other townspeople react to their legacies? Why did Reverend Ayers feel so threatened by Auntie?
6. Martin cherishes Sara and continually strives to please her. Does she love him in equal measure, or does her ancestry make it too difficult for an outsider to fully share a life with her?
7. How was Sara affected by her history with her siblings, Constance and Jacob? Why did their father easily become dependent on Auntie, while Sara’s mother didn’t trust her?
8. Did Tom and Bridget O’Rourke have ethical motivations? Did Candace? How do the revelations about them affect Ruthie’s sense of self?
9. How did you react to Gertie’s hunger? What is its significance to the maternal women who must care for her?
10. Discuss Katherine and Gary’s love for each other. How does their marriage compare to the others presented in the book? How do Katherine’s art and Gary’s photography give them a unique perspective on life and memory? What does their story indicate about whether a sleeper should be awakened?
11. Consider the rules for waking a sleeper. What do the words and the ingredients represent in terms of the cycles of life and the nature of death?
12. What were your theories about the many unsolved deaths in West Hall? Did your instincts prove to be correct when the truth about the Devil’s Hand was revealed?
13. In The Winter People and previous novels by Jennifer McMahon that you have enjoyed, how is the author able to make surreal situations seem highly realistic? What role do fear and courage play in each of her books?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a great book this was to read around Halloween! When I started this novel, I was also reading three other books at the same time, but dropped them to focus on this one because I couldn't wait to see what would happen. A small New England town during winter, disappearances, murders, and 'sleepers' - what a perfect setup for a captivating read. I'm not giving anything away when I say the 'sleepers' in this story brought to mind Stephen King's Pet Sematary - the sleepers are mentioned on the first page by Sara in her diary. This is the first book I've read in quite some time where the story is told primarily in varying female perspectives. The reader is taken back to the early 1900's in Sara's point of view and then to present day from Ruthie and Kathleen's perspectives. Sara's husband also gets a couple of chapters of his own, but those just helped me understand Sara even more. It became evident early on there was a connection between most of the characters in this story and the mystery of that is what kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed all the characters in this book, even if I doubted their sanity and innocence at times. As a mother, I could understand Sara's grief, her inability to let go of her child, and the boundaries she crossed to keep that from happening. This was a wonderful blend of thriller, mystery, and horror genres - not the blood and gore type, more of the goosebumps-on-your-arms, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, don't-look-over-your-shoulder kind. I haven't read anything by this author before and, looking at some other reviews, this is apparently a different path for her, but I enjoyed the journey. This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.
It's been so long since I've had the pleasure of reading a page-turning Gothic novel. Daphne DuMaurier was one of my very favorites, Anne Rice is an awesome writer in this vein, but lately she has gone into new territory that doesn't hold my interest. This book sounds like it will appeal to lovers of dark and spooky nights.
3.5/5 It seems to be things that go bump in the night week for me! Jennifer McMahon's latest book is The Winter People. I love the dedication..... " For Zeila. Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods ..... Sometimes it just happens." And that's exactly what happens. Ruthie and Fawn live with their mother Alice in West Hall, Vermont on a hardscrabble farm near a rocky ridge known as The Devil's Hand. When Alice disappears without a trace, the girls search the house for clues - and come upon a diary hidden under the floorboards. The diary is from 1908 and belonged to Sara, a former resident of the house. What Ruthie reads seems impossible. But again, there have always been rumours and legends about Devil's Hand. And people do go missing..... McMahon weaves her story through past and present as the girls search for their mother and we catch up by reading Sara's diary from 1908. "She's one of the winter people. The people who are stuck between here and there, waiting. It reminds me of winter, how everything is all pale and cold and full of nothing, and all you can do is wait for sparing." I really enjoyed the build up of the story and found it hard to put down - I wanted to know what had happened and what was going to happen. But I found one of the final characters involved in the ending overdone and the conclusion was a little too predictable and somewhat familiar. (Think Pet Semetary) For me, this somewhat detracted from what had been a good horror/ghost story up until then. Of the two narratives, I preferred Sara's from 1908. It was scarier and more atmospheric. Still, The Winter People kept me turning pages on a dark winter night. Entertaining, but not my favourite McMahon book. (Island of Lost Girls is my fave.)
What an amazing book. Its been a while since I've read a really good page-turner!!!
Loved this book. Couldn't stop reading it.
I made the "mistake" of taking this book overseas on my honeymoon and had some serious apologizing to do to my husband. Not only did this book scare the pants off me (read at night at your own risk) but I couldn't put it down! Every spare second I had I was nose deep in it. It was a scary, thrilling page turner I'm too chicken to read again! My husband read it when I was done and he didn't want to shut his eyes either. The ending was a stretch for my taste but it was great none the less. Totally recommend!
4.5 stars What an intriguing and mysterious adventure I found myself on, when I checked this audio out. Two stories that I found myself wrapped up in with characters who were dedicated to their responsibility. The novel begins with Sara’s story in 1908, when Sara writes about her life with her husband and her daughter Gertie. It’s written in diary format, and as Sara words speak to you, there is pain of lost babies, hard times on the homestead and her life growing up. Sara is head over heels in love with young Gertie and when an incident leaves Gertie dead, Sara grieves terribly. Remembering a spell that she was taught when she was younger, she uses that spell on Gertie. I was nervous as I listened to this audio, afraid of what Sara was producing. Gertie, the child which consumed Sara, her dead child, she has listened once again to her mother and Sara’s spell has worked. She has become a Sleeper. What has Sara done? The second story takes place in the current time period. A mother and her two daughters are now living in Sara’s home. Everything is fine until one day when the mother vanishes without a clue. The oldest daughter begins to inquire about her mother’s absence while the youngest daughter worries and clutches her doll. They cannot find anything about where their mother has gone to. Their traditional game of hide-n-seek begins to give the girls some unusual bits and pieces about the house that they were not aware of and they begin to wonder if these are not clues about their mother’s disappearance. They’re a bright duo and they begin to investigate these clues, calling upon others to help them. I enjoyed how the two stories begin to come together, the voices of both stories bringing the strange and unnatural elements together. Sara is committed to her Gertie and the girls are committed to bringing their mother back. I really enjoyed this novel, a few times it got redundant and I wanted more story or something to occur but those times were few. I recommend this title, it’s an interesting look into what love is and the supernatural.
Great twist on the typical horror story.
Really good book. Kept me guessing till the end.
Wonderfully eerie! Suspenseful, will have you looking over your shoulder!There is a sense of unease that the author creates since page one....a trepidation that keeps its momentum until the last page! I have not read a book this scary since Stephen King's ghost story, " Bag of Bones."
best book of the year !? -- C'mon Globe! interesting idea strung out through pages of banal writing.
Bizarre! Apparently, I'm not on the same page as the rest of the reviewers.
Was well written, clever & spooky. Plot was well developed & paced.
This was the first book by Jennifer McMahon that read and i did the mistake of reading it at night. Let me just say that it creeped me out to the max. This was such an amazing read.Loved the way that the author kept switching between time frames going back and fourth until the conclusion!
I have read several of McMahon's novel and found all to be very interesting. This is the first one I have read tbat would really say has a unique and creative plotline. I would re ommend it, but only tpeople who like a bit of a psychological horror story
The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon is a dark mystery with layers. I thought I had it figured out, then changed my mind, then changed my mind again, and back again. There are clues, but then something else happens that distracted me from the clues. The story is carried out through generations and is told through multiple point of views in multiple time periods. That sounds like it would be confusing right? But, it's not. It's well told and easy to follow. I felt pulled into the lives of the characters. I even felt chills a time or two, which never happens when I read. This is the first book I've read by this author, but now I have to check out more of her books. The ARC of The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon was kindly provided to me by the publisher for review. The opinions are my own.
Loved this book. Really creepy but amazing.
As I don't want to give away too much of the story, I will just say that I was highly disappointed. I think this is the third book I've read of hers & by far the worst. I read all of these reviews about it being scary, etc., but I felt none of it. Even though it's been years since I read her Promise Not to Tell, I remember feeling frightened & loving that one. With The Winter People, I kept waiting for it to get interesting, but by the end, I just wanted to hurry up & finish it. I have to say, the ending was probably the most disappointing.
This story was excellent. Jennifer McMahon magically wove together the story line from 1908 and present day. And while technically you could say this is a zombie book, Gertie does come back from the dead, it doesn’t have the feel of a typical zombie story. It’s more of a mystery with a touch of a ghost story and a bit of horror combined. I don’t want to go deeply into the plot because there would be spoilers. That was the joy of reading the book, figuring out the mystery along with the characters of present day. It also has the reader thinking, at first, that it’s not possible to bring back the dead. But as you go further into the story, you begin to wonder if it could happen. There are so many unexplained things on this planet, and people have long since believed in the supernatural, so just maybe. The few horror parts were well written, and I could easily picture the scenes. The one in particular that made me a bit squeamish was how they found Sara dead. There’s a couple unanswered questions that will leave the reader thinking about the book even after they have finished it. The one that I keep wondering about is Fawn, Ruthie’s sister, and her doll. Was the doll really talking to Fawn, since she seemed to know things that a child wouldn’t have known. Or was Fawn a bit of a psychic, and could she see into the future. How the book ended left it open for another book, and I would definitely read it. Also with Fawn possibly being psychic, it would compliment Ruthie very nicely if there were to be another book.
What a different, creepy, & well written book. I didn't care for the multiple point-of -view perspectives... however, overall, it was a good horror-fiction.
Written from a few point of views which I usually don't like, but this was written where it is easily followed. Very intense and a great thriller!
Kept me going, no dull spots
Spooky and delicious. Loved it.