Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. As the memories of her old life continue to surface, she’s forced to forge ahead in the snow-drifted Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap and slaughter. Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive in the endless white wilderness beyond the edges of a fallen world.
Shadows of the world before have found her tiny community—most prominently in the enigmatic figure of Jax, who brings with him dark secrets of the past and sets in motion a chain of events that will call Lynn to a role she never imagined.
“With elements of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and TV’s The Walking Dead, (Kirkus Reviews) The Wolves of Winter is both a heartbreaking, sympathetic portrait of a young woman searching for the answer to who she's meant to be and a frightening vision of a merciless new world in which desperation rules. It is enthralling, propulsive, and poignant.
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The trap was empty and the snow was bloody, which meant one of three things.
One: The animal had gotten itself loose, making a mess in the process. Unlikely. Too much blood.
Two: Wolves had gotten to it and somehow managed to drag the carcass out of the trap. Even more unlikely. Not enough blood. Or hair. Besides, their tracks would have been obvious.
Three: Conrad had poached my kill.
Thieving, asshole Conrad. Not only likely but, based on the boot prints and snakelike trails that his sled made through the bloody Rorschach marks in the snow, it was the only option. It had snowed early that morning, maybe an hour before the sun crested the hills. A thin dusting had already settled over his prints. He got up early, you had to give Conrad that much. Stealing didn't seem like him, though. He was an ass, no doubt about it, but a thief?
The animal's prints were teardrops, scattered about the bloody mush of snow. Teardrops meant deer. And by the size of the prints, it was a buck. My wire had been snipped too. I'd placed it between two pine trees in a small ravine. The logjams on either side were a bitch to set up, but they herded the animals into the trap. I took the broken wire between my gloved fingers. You know how rare wire was nowadays? I could repair it, but it wouldn't hold as strong. I was always careful to remove the wire by unthreading it from the tree and the animal so that I could use it again. I was pissed.
I adjusted my compound bow under my arm and the rope over my left shoulder. The rope was attached to my sled. My uncle Jeryl — Dad's brother — had made the sled for me four years earlier. About three feet wide, six feet long. It carried small game no problem, a deer was tough for me but manageable, and an elk, caribou, or moose I had to butcher first and carry just the meat. The sled was made of spruce and had bloodstains from past kills splattered about the wood, but it was sturdy. I always dragged it along with me to check the traps.
A slight easterly wind stung my nose and cracked lips. The sun was gray and bored in the hazy sky, but the fresh fallen snow was still blinding. Sunglasses. I missed sunglasses. I headed southeast, into the wind. It was less than a mile to Conrad's place. Dragging the sled made it tough going, but I didn't care. No way in hell I was going to let him keep my kill. He was a big man, though, and he was stronger than me.
Somewhere, a gray jay woke and started chattering. The wind blew a dusting of snow from the ground that billowed like smoke in the chill morning air, and the sun, not giving a shit about my deer, was probably already contemplating its early descent.
I was sixteen when we left Eagle, Alaska. When things got bad, when everyone seemed to be leaving, we up and left too. We headed into the Yukon Territory. To the trees, hills, mountains, valleys, rivers, snow, snow, snow, snow, snow. The vast wilderness of nothing. But for the next seven years, that nothing became home. I got used to it. The whiteness a comfort, the pine trees a refuge, the silence of it a friend I never knew I needed or wanted.
Being twenty-three now, looking back on my sixteen-year-old self, Alaska feels like a different world. Or a dream. Where people had jobs, hobbies, possessions, friends, and things like ovens, TV, cereal, toasters, pizza. But what made that life real for me was Dad. His death didn't feel like a lifetime ago. I carried him with me everywhere I went.
Conrad lived in a small log cabin next to the Blackstone River. He built the place himself, and it always looked to me like it was about to fall over. It leaned slightly to the south. Reminded me of the pine, fir, and spruce trees — the tired-looking ones that were hunched over from the weight of the snow. They looked exhausted, depressed, like they'd given up, given in to the arctic bully. Snow can be a burden sometimes. All the time, really. There didn't used to be so much of it. Before the wars and the bombs.
When the cabin came into sight, I spotted the deer right away, lying in the snow next to Conrad's door. It was a buck, just like I thought, a big buck, a horse with antlers. A good kill. My kill.
I made my way down the hill to his cabin and walked right up to the carcass. When I got close enough, I let go of the sled and surveyed the animal. The thing was stiff. A clean cut across the jugular. I knelt down and put my hands in the brown fur, then palmed the antlers, the soft velvet on the horns folding beneath my gloves. I'd probably be able to get it on the sled and up and over the first hill or two. But from there I'd have to run and get help to bring it all the way home. First, though, I had to get it off the damn porch. Conrad's porch. I wiped my frozen nose with the sleeve of my jacket.
The door creaked open, and Conrad filled the doorway, his dark green winter coat and boots still on, and his .308 rifle held loose at his hip like he was compensating for something. "Admiring my kill?" He had a dense black beard and brown eyes like a wolverine's, sitting too close to his nose. He was a thick man. Thick around the waist, neck, face, and limbs. How he'd managed to stay so round through the lean months I didn't know. He had a smell about him too — wet wood, near to rot.
"This is my kill," I said.
He just smiled. Probably had been rehearsing the conversation. "So you slit its throat?" His voice was low, buttery with the pleasure of the situation. He was eating this up.
I glared, hoping some of the heat I felt in my stomach would transfer through my eyes, laser to his forehead, and burn him to charcoal. "I'm taking it back."
"I don't think so." He set the rifle down just outside the door.
"It was my trap."
"It was my knife, my find. How was I supposed to know it was your trap?"
"You knew damn well it was my trap."
"A poorly assembled bit of wire?"
"Set in a ravine, with logjams on either side to herd the animals through. Don't be stupid."
He shrugged, the thin smile never leaving his pinched face. I wanted to punch my fist right through it. Shatter his teeth, jaw, skull.
"It's a lovely day," he said, inhaling the stinging morning air, exhaling tendrils of white steam. "A good day for butchering."
"I'm taking the deer," I said, lifting my rope and pulling in my sled. I set down my bow, wrapped a hand around the buck's antlers, and started to jerk the massive bulk. Conrad grabbed my arm. His grip was firm, trying to prove something to us both.
I yanked my arm back, but his fingers just tightened. "Let me go!"
"I'll butcher him up, make a nice warm coat for you. We'll call it even. How'd you like that?"
My dad always told me that when I'm angry, I make rash decisions. I get it from Mom. Once, back in Alaska, I broke two of my brother's fingers in the doorway. "Take a breath," my dad would say, "and think. Think about what you're going to do, what you want to happen, and if there's a better way to get things done."
But I was too pissed at Conrad. I swung at him. Fist clenched, arm flailing. It was a stupid move. My fist connected with the edge of his jaw. His head barely tipped back. My knuckles vibrated with pain.
"Bitch." The word rumbled from his round belly. His eyes grew intense, like those of an animal charging. Hungry. He came at me. I might have had time to raise my arms or duck if I'd thought the bastard would hit a girl. But I didn't. Didn't think he had it in him. So I was caught completely unaware when his fist collided with my cheek and knocked me flat to the ground. He wasn't wearing gloves either.
The snow wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. My head reeled. The gray of the sky waterfalled to the earth, then the earth to the sky — the pine trees dipped and jumped. I blinked and felt water fill my left eye where he'd struck. Then his weight was on me, firm and heavy, full of heat and iron.
"You're dead, you asshole," I said, gasping. "You're a dead man." My voice was weak and didn't carry the anger I felt.
His hands pinned me down, his face inches from mine. I couldn't move. I felt a panicked helplessness.
"You're a stupid little girl." He shifted his weight, his stomach pressing against my side. "You think you have a little community with rules? You don't. Welcome to the new world. Your brother and uncle can't do shit to me. They can try if they want, but I'll fucking kill them."
He turned his body again, his left elbow and forearm pushing against my chest, pinning me to the ground. Then his other hand slithered down to my thigh. "I can do whatever I want, whenever I want."
"I don't need my uncle; I'll kill you myself!" I spat in his face and saw a small bead of spit land in his eyelashes, but he just blinked it away. His hand went higher up my thigh. I thrashed and tried to claw his eyeballs, but I couldn't reach. He was too big, the fat fuck. Then his palm was between my legs. I clenched them, but I could feel his fingers on me. They pressed, dipping and rubbing as I squirmed, helpless as a caught fox. I felt my knife dig into my hip. My Hän knife. I kept it sharp. But my hand was pinned. I couldn't reach it.
He leaned in even closer, trembling, his beard tickling my chin. I was going to be sick, was going to throw up in his face. Might have been a good thing if I had.
"Whatever I want," he repeated.
Then it was over. The touching, the weight, the stink of his breath. He released me and stood. I took in quick, shallow gasps of air. My cheek throbbed. I got to my feet as quick as I could and thought about going for my knife or my bow, discarded in the snow beside me. Conrad watched with a pleased look on his face. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was making a statement. Claiming territory. Drawing lines. Letting us know that he wasn't afraid of us.
Either way, he was a dead man. I decided to tell him again.
"You're a dead man."
"Run off to your uncle."
I picked up my bow, then snagged the rope attached to my sled. The buck stared at me with his dead, marble eyes. Such an impressive creature, rotting on the front step of Conrad's shit shack, waiting to be butchered by his careless knife. I gave Conrad one last glare before turning. But the fire didn't burst out of my watering eyes. It didn't burn him to charcoal.
"Bye bye, Gwendolynn," he said as I walked away.
"Fuck you, Conrad."
I've always hated my name. Gwendolynn. It's too long and sounds stupid. It means something about the moon. Or maybe it just means moon. I can't remember. And I hate Gwen too. Sounds like it's from the Stone Age. So I go by Lynn. Only my mom calls me Gwendolynn, or my brother, Ken, when he's being an ass, which is fairly often. Dad always called me Lynn because he knew I liked it. Whenever I complained about my name, he'd quote Walt Whitman. "I exist as I am, that is enough." He loved Walt Whitman. Used to go to the river and read Leaves of Grass. He gave me a book of Walt Whitman's collected poems, and I still have it. I read it often. I can't say I really appreciate or understand it. Sounds like the rantings of a guy who may or may not think he's a tree. But something about his poems is comforting. Probably because they remind me of Dad.
Our settlement was four buildings strung together in a narrow valley surrounded by hills. To the west rose a giant limestone ridge, mostly covered in snow now, but in the warm season, it was quite a thing to see. Beyond that were the white-capped Ogilvie Mountains, jutting up like the backs of giant beasts. To the east, over a spruce-dotted hill, was the Blackstone River — shallow and mostly frozen over this time of year. Mom and I lived in the biggest building, a log cabin. It was the first place we built, where we all stayed in the beginning. Me; Uncle Jeryl; Mom; my brother, Ken; and Ramsey — the son of Jeryl's best friend, who was taken by the flu back in Alaska.
Thank God Jeryl was good with his hands. He and Dad built a cabin down the river a few miles out from our old home in Eagle. We went there in the summers until the powers that be came and tore it down because we didn't own the land or have a license to build. I still have fond memories of that cabin. Our Yukon cabin was nothing like that one. It was merely functional, and then just barely. In the spring, the wind sluiced through it, but in the winter, when the daylight shriveled to nothing, when it got too cold, we packed the crevices with snow for insulation. When a good fire was burning, it didn't take long to heat the small space.
Eventually, Jeryl and Ramsey built a log cabin next to ours. Smaller than ours, but when you stepped inside, it looked more or less the same. Same wooden walls, a fireplace, a single bedroom, and a loft overhead with another cot. Then, after the first two years, Ken decided to move out. He built an even smaller place. Yup. You guessed it. A log cabin. Four walls, fireplace, cot, and, of course, the poster. The stupid poster of two girls in bikinis next to a race car. They had huge, fake boobs and flat stomachs. Ken, at eighteen, had decided that the poster was worth dragging across the border into the Yukon. Mom said no of course, but he snuck it in his jacket. The corners of it were curved, and the whole thing was wrinkled and worn. I hated that poster. It was a reminder of the worst parts of the old world.
The fourth building was the animal shed, which doubled as an equipment shed and storage for firewood. We had two goats named Hector and Helen, and one musk ox named Stankbutt — everyone else called him Jebediah, but Stankbutt fit for obvious reasons. Hector and Helen were good for milk, cheese, and warning us with their incessant wails when wolves were about. They were also good for making kids that would one day replace them. Stankbutt, on the other hand, was good for nothing. He was old too. While the goats were only two when we left Alaska, he was five. And after seven years of freezing temperatures and crap food, he couldn't have much more left in him. Both Jeryl and Ramsey had musk ox fur coats that they swore by, but other than that, the fat, hairy ox was more or less useless. Jeryl offered to make us coats of our own, but Mom had brought to the Yukon so many leggings, wool sweaters, and thick down jackets that we never took him up on his offer. One extra-lean winter was all it was going to take and good-bye, Stankbutt. You'll taste delicious.
We grew crops behind the storage shed. There wasn't much to our little family farm. Just a flat bit of land where we dug up the earth and planted carrots and potatoes. Like everything else, it was covered in snow now, but come spring, we'd tend to the softening ground. But that was spring. That was a long ways away. Not to mention the fact that last year's spring was the shortest we'd had yet. Maybe, eventually, there wouldn't be a spring left for potatoes to grow. But that wasn't worth thinking about quite yet.
As I approached our little town-camp-settlement, I tried to get my story straight. I'd considered not telling my uncle Jeryl about what happened with Conrad. But what was I going to say about my puffy cheek, my swollen eye? Admitting that Conrad had gotten the best of me, that he'd held me down in the snow and done what he'd done, made me look weak. But saying that I tripped and fell made me look like an idiot. No, I had to come clean. I honestly didn't know what Jeryl would do, though. Kill him? Talk to him? Nothing? No, not nothing. Ken would do nothing. Suck it up, he'd say, being the compassionate, caring older brother that he was.
The snow on the tops of our cabins had piled up. Maybe a foot. Jeryl would have to get the ladder soon and give them a good dusting. Piled snow can break wooden roofs over time. Funny thing about snow. You pick it up in your gloved hand and it feels like a handful of flour, easily blown away in the wind, but pile it on, let it sit for a while, and it'll bend the strongest wood. Snow can save you and sustain you, crush you and kill you. Snow is a fickle bastard.
Like always, Jeryl saw me coming. Don't know if he looked for me, heard me, or had some sort of sixth sense, but whenever I returned from hunting or checking the traps, if he wasn't with me or out hunting himself, he'd step out of his cabin and watch me come in, help me bring in the kill, or just ask me about the hunt.
Excerpted from "The Wolves of Winter"
Copyright © 2017 Tyrell Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Wolves of Winter includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A captivating tale of humanity pushed beyond its breaking point, of family and bonds of love forged when everything is lost, and of a heroic young woman who crosses a frozen landscape to find her destiny, this debut novel is in a postapocalyptic tradition that spans The Hunger Games and Station Eleven but blazes its own distinctive path.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think the author chose Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself to be the special book shared between Lynn and her father?
2. Would you have dealt with Conrad, after his attack of Lynn, the same way Jeryl did (page 26)? Why or why not?
3. Why do you think Ramsey gets upset when Lynn tries to sleep with him? Why does Lynn get “this ball in the pit of [her] stomach” when she thinks about it afterwards (page 37)?
4. Lynn’s father tells her that first you survive in your head, then in your stomach, and then in your heart. He tells her, “You have to have all three” (page 63). How do Lynn, Mary, Ken, Jeryl, and Ramsey survive at their homestead? Do they each have all three?
5. Should Lynn have been more wary of Jax and Wolf when they appeared (page 52)? What would you have done in Lynn’s place?
6. After Jax and Jeryl leave in pursuit of Nayan, Lynn feels, “If I was ever going to get away, this was my chance” (page 116). Why is she so compelled to rush after them in that moment?
7. While Lynn is at the Immunity camp, Braylen’s motives are difficult for Lynn to decipher. Did Braylen ultimately mean well? Was she trustworthy?
8. Anders’s methods for combating the flu are “harsh, but they work” (page 185). How might his actions be justified despite their cruelty?
9. Anders calls Lynn “a stupid child” before his death (page 281). How does Lynn grow and mature over the course of the story? How is she still childlike?
10. Was Mary right to keep Lynn’s immunity and her father’s letter a secret (page 260)? Should she have told Lynn sooner?
11. Why does Jeryl leave the camp in search of the bear he believes to be John-Henry (page 290)?
12. What do you think Lynn and Jax might find in Vancouver (page 297)?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Wolves of Winter details some of the routines the McBrides and their friends must keep up in order to survive in the Yukon—hunting, trapping, building their homes from scratch. Watch the documentary Alone in the Wilderness, about a man who built a cabin and lived alone in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska, and discuss what life in the wilderness would be like with your group.
2. Quotes from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself are woven throughout The Wolves of Winter. Read Song of Myself, or listen to a recording of it at whitmanarchive.org/multimedia/audio.html, and discuss your favorite passages.