Winter Loon
by Bernhard, Susan

A haunting debut novel about family and sacrifice, Winter Loon reminds us of how great a burden the past can be, the toll it exacts, and the freedom that comes from letting it go.

Abandoned by his father after his mother drowns in a frozen Minnesota lake, fifteen-year-old Wes Ballot is stranded with coldhearted grandparents and holed up in his mother’s old bedroom, surrounded by her remnants and memories. As the wait for his father stretches unforgivably into months, a local girl, whose own mother died a brutal death, captures his heart and imagination, giving Wes fresh air to breathe in the suffocating small town.

When buried truths come to light in the spring thaw, wounds are exposed and violence erupts, forcing Wes to embark on a search for his missing father, the truth about his mother, and a future he must claim for himself—a quest that begins back at that frozen lake.

A powerful, page-turning coming-of-age story, Winter Loon captures the resilience of a boy determined to become a worthy man by confronting family demons, clawing his way out of the darkness, and forging a life from the shambles of a broken past.

Wes Ballot is 15 years old when his mother falls through the ice on a Wisconsin lake and drowns. In the aftermath, his dad, Moss, a sometime carnival barker who was never around much to begin with, takes off. Moss promises to return, but in the meantime, Wes is sent to live with his barely solvent grandparents, Ruby and Gip. Struggling to come to terms with his mother's death, over which he feels some guilt (he was with her on the ice when she went in), and clearly not wanted by Ruby and Gip, Wes finds more of a home with the Native American Hightowers. He falls in love with one of them, Jolene, putting him further at odds with Ruby and Gip as well as with bigoted townspeople. Meanwhile, he uncovers some family secrets that help account for his mother's recklessness and his grandmother's rancor. Additional tragedies send him on the road to Montana to search for Moss and closure. Wes' struggles are convincing; the midwestern setting is well realized; and, despite some lapses into sentimentality, Bernhard's coming-of-age tale is a strong debut. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

Bernhard's debut centers on the ugly cards fate deals to adolescent boy Wes Ballot: poverty, alcoholism, rape, incest, abuse, and abandonment, to name a few. Living with the pain caused by other people in pain, the protagonist has a resilience that's almost beyond belief—really, it is hard to believe. The novel opens with 15-year-old Wes' "ear to the ice, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland...where the ice had given way and the hungry lake had swallowed [his] mother whole." The utter bleakness of this initial scene aptly sets the tone for the remainder of the book and showcases one of the author's most commendable skills: visceral descriptions of the frigid winters in rural Minnesota. Abandoned by his drifter father, Wes ends up in Loma living with Gip and Ruby, his maternal grandparents. The two are a sad and vile pair who blame their grandson for his mother's death. When Wes asks if God allowed his mother to die, Ruby responds heart lessly: "God wasn't there, Wes….You were." Against this emotional backdrop and with no supportive authority to guide him, Wes somehow attends high school, holds a summer job, and falls in love. Bernhard shows that she is not afraid of difficult or touchy subjects, illustrating the prevalence of classism and racism in the lives of the inhabitants of her fictional small town, but she doesn't go beyond the surface in her exploration of systematic prejudice. The problems, like the characters, are underdeveloped. As the novel progresses, Wes uncovers repressed family secrets so horrendous that the reader might find some passages difficult to read. A coming-of-age story overloaded with tragedy, hopelessness, and trauma. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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