Excerpt from December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 256 pages
    Jul 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Wilson’s got his arm deep in the twisted mess of wires, pipes, and tubing that festers there beneath his truck’s dented hood like the intestines of some living thing. He gropes at the undersides of things, trying to find whatever leaking crack it is that’s caused him now to fail inspection twice. That and the broken hinge of the driver’s seat, which he keeps upright by stacking milk crates behind it.

“Damn truck,” he mutters. “Goddamn.” He says it though he loves this truck, he wouldn’t ever trade it in. It keeps him busy on the weekends; it’s a project, a chore.

Today is Wilson’s birthday. He looks younger than his forty-two years, and in many ways he feels it. He feels the same as he always has, all his life, same as he did as a kid stalking through the woods with a BB gun or a young man drunk at a keg party, and so sometimes he doesn’t recognize the city businessman he’s become, with a weekend house in the country, a wife, a child who breaks his heart. He’d always thought by the time he got to somewhere around forty-two he’d be ready to accept stiffening joints and graying hair, wrinkles and cholesterol pills, but when these things apply to him he feels as if there’s been some mistake; he’s not quite ready for them yet.

He pulls his arm out from under the truck’s hood and starts to wipe the grease from his hand onto the rag he’s taken from the bag of them in the hall closet: old clothing ripped into neat squares. He stares absently at the truck’s engine as he rubs the rag over his fingers one by one, then he shuts the hood. He’ll have to take the thing in to the shop, he thinks; he’s no mechanic. A breeze chills him, and he looks at the sky. The clouds are low and rolling. Fall leaves ride the air, and he imagines gulls at the nearby shore coasting the wind. Late autumn always fills him with something like fear, or dread, or sadness; he’s never sure how to label the feeling. It’s an awareness of the inevitable impending dark, barren cold of winter, which when it comes is fine, he knows, and eventually ends. Still, he shudders.

Firewood, he thinks. He should chop some firewood. He’s bought a new rack to store it on outside this winter, with a tarp attached to keep it dry; he assembled it last weekend, and now it needs filling. He should bring some wood inside, too; it’s getting cold enough for a fire, and Isabelle loves a fire. She’ll sit in front of one for hours, reading, or drawing, or staring at the flames, rotating her body when one side gets too hot. Like a chicken on a spit, he once said, which made her laugh.

He walks to the garage for an ax. He tosses the dirty rag he’s holding into the trash can, which is nearly overflowing with cardboard, Styrofoam, wood scraps, newspapers, empty paint cans and oil bottles, and other rags like this one. He stares at the newest rag and tilts his head in recognition. The rag is flannel, printed with purple alligators. It’s from a nightgown he brought back years ago for Isabelle, from a business trip to where? Spain, or maybe Portugal that time; he can’t remember. But he does remember buying it, calling Ruth back in the States to make sure that he bought the right size, and the right size slippers to match.

He takes the rag from the trash can and holds it in his hand. He considers folding it up, tucking it away somewhere, but then he sees no point in that. He hesitates a second more, then tosses it back into the can, lifts his ax, and goes outside.


Ruth stands over the kitchen sink peeling carrots. “I thought I’d make split pea,” she says. “A huge vat of it that we can keep frozen and warm up, you know, on those Friday nights when we get here and it’s late and cold and the furnace is out or the pipes are frozen. I feel like that happens more and more each winter, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a warm bowl of soup? That and a fire, if your father ever gets around to chopping wood.” She puts the last peeled carrot down onto the pile of them stacked on the cutting board and watches the skin spin down the drain as she runs the disposal.

Excerpted from December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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