Summary and book reviews of Winterkill by Karen Wunderman


by Karen Wunderman

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  • Paperback:
    Mar 2002, 296 pages

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Book Summary

For ten years, Ben Dalton has been fighting to keep his past a secret, but he's about to crash headlong into one of life's immutable truths: No matter how hard he runs, no matter how hard he tries, he can't outrun his past. And when it catches up to him, it just might destroy him.

An ex-communist in New York who became disillusioned with the Party in the 1940s, Ben soon learns that being a communist was easier than being an ex-communist. Old friends betray him and he finds himself facing a life of persecution and shame over his former affiliations. Determined to leave his past behind in the noise and grime of New York City, Ben moves his wife and baby daughter to the idyllic White Mountains of New Hampshire. But it's the 1950s, the Cold War is on, and this is small-town America, where people aren't known for embracing outsiders and their strange ideas.

Through a series of mishaps, word slowly leaks out about his past, and Ben becomes trapped in a web of lethargy and denial. But denial, it turns out, is useless, and Ben and his family become the targets of escalating attacks that take on a life of their own. Between assaults on himself and his family, Ben tries to get on with his life, but he's defeated at every turn. His wife devotes herself to trying to protect him, and while no one is paying attention, their daughter's dawning adolescent rebellion explodes into full-blown insurrection. Death and destruction come to a town where the people never wanted anything more than to mind their own business, and the fine stitching that holds the family and the town together begins to unravel.

A novel of rich emotional depth, Winterkill succeeds in eliciting sympathy and understanding for its unusual characters. The author challenges the reader to examine difficult issues in a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story, and the result is a page-turner that leaves the reader reluctant to depart this fictional world and close the cover for one last time.

Chapter One

The trouble with life is it can kill you. Just ask anyone in Sitwell, they'll tell you. All you need to do is give it half a chance--turn your back, let your guard down. Hell, they could even prove it if they had to. Anyone on the long list of dead fools could help make the point. Few people needed more convincing than that.

Maybe that was why the bell in the church tower rang every half-hour. Maybe it reassured them, reminded the people of this small New England town that they weren't dead yet. Forty-eight times each day they were reminded, taking what comfort they could from the warbling peal that echoed across the valley and broke against the hard granite walls of the mountains. The huge clock set the rhythm of their lives, and like condemned men watching the executioner's clock, they clung to its mechanical beat as if it were the beat of life itself.

Across the street at the general store, Mrs. Dumont had run into Mrs. Malloy, or Mrs. Becker was...

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BookBrowse Review


Karen Wunderman’s first book Winterkill is a beautifully written coming of age story about a young girl growing up and coming to terms with her father’s past which threatens to not only destroy her father but her family as well.

Set in the 40s and 50s, Ben Dalton has become disillusioned with his communist past and, intent on making a fresh start, has moved his family from New York to a small community in New Hampshire. He struggles to keep his past a secret but, inevitably, it catches up with him. As a result, he and his family are shunned by the community, and their peaceful world shatters, exposing some hard truths about small-town living. I was drawn into the story - wanting to know if the family would survive the prejudice and narrow mindedness that surrounded them - made all the more ugly by the beautiful setting in which they occur.

Wunderman goes where few writers have dared in exploring the difficult subjects of communism and atheism (as she says in her interview at BookBrowse she didn’t set out to write about these subjects per se but wanted her characters to be truly shunned by the community without making them perverts or criminals). Whatever her reasons, she does a wonderful job of bringing to life small town America, warts and all, and putting a human face on those affected by McCarthy and his witchhunts.

Recommended for adults and older teens.  

Media Reviews

Boston Post-Gazette

Author Karen Wunderman's book, Winterkill, is a resounding success. Somehow she was able to derive from her somewhat offbeat writing background to produce a masterful story. Her daring background writings dealing with difficult subjects such as communism and atheism blend successfully with her exciting and remarkable story. Wunderman has learned her craft well. She is an excellent writer who successfully holds the reader's attention throughout the book. Do not miss this one.

Alfred Magazine

It took Karen Wunderman eight years to write her first novel, working mostly between 1-4 a.m. But the result more than justifies the sleepless nights. Wunderman's novel combines a fine historical sense of the McCarthy period with a gifted novelist's feel for character and plot development. The result is a great read.

Heartland Reviews

Winterkill is a novel encompassing the late 40s and 50s. Ben Dalton becomes disenchanted with his membership in the American Communist Party in New York and moves his wife and baby daughter to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The automatic shunning by the community and the ways in which Ben has to rise above his past make for a worthy plot. The author portrays this small, dysfunctional family in a realistic yet tender way. Setting, character, and dialogue treatments are her strong suits. This was a good study of Northeastern small town society.

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