IN THE LAND OF WINTER
What happens when a witch fights the system? Worse, what happens when an entire town is turned upside down by rumors of satanic ritual abuse? Worst of all, what happens when a little girl is taken away from her mother just a few days before Christmas, by well-meaning officials who believe the child is being abused, without a shred of evidence to prove it?
Richard Grant, author of the highly acclaimed novel Tex and Molly in the Afterlife, has crafted a witty, quirky and unbelievably moving story of a young single mother whose life spins out of control. Pippa Rede lives with her nine-year-old daughter, Winterbelle, in the home of her Aunt Eulace. Unmarried, a loner by nature, Pippa quietly practices witchcraft and works part-time at a local florist shop. She does not make enough money to own a house or car, but is fiercely devoted to her smart, sassy daughter, and does what she can to give her daughter a healthy, happy life. When rumors of a local satanic cult surface in the local paper, fuelled by the paranoia and bigotry of some fundamentalist Christians, Winterbelle's school guidance counselor sends a Child Welfare worker to her home to question Pippa. Caught offguard, and self-conscious about being scrutinized, Pippa is less than cooperative, and, upon the discovery of Winterbelle, in a Yule surprise for her mother, dancing semi-naked to the sensual drumming and chanting of Gabrielle Roth in her candlelit bedroom, and on the "evidence" of a burn on Winterbelle's arm (caused by a candle), the child is taken away. When the newspaper begins printing increasingly outrageous stories of children being abused in ritualized settings, including an "editorial" by a "survivor" who gives a "recovered-memory" account of her own abuse and who accuses local witches of belonging to the underground cult, an unflattering photo of Pippa appears on the front page, and she is sought for questioning by the police.
Her troubles only begin there. She is fired from her job, and Aunt Eulace leaves her a chilly note saying she'd better find somewhere else to live. A bumbling lawyer tracks Pippa down and promises to take the case to the ACLU; meanwhile, a flamboyant transgendered Neo-Pagan named Glyph And/or, working with the organization Witches Against Negativity and Discrimination (WAND), arrives from, he says, "Califia," and also vows to help Pippa, along with her out-of-the-broom-closet, hedonistic friend Judith. Despite the well-meaning efforts of many around her, Pippa is so depressed and frustrated at the loss of Winterbelle that she cannot seem to come up with a plan. Kaspian Aaby, the teenage stepson of one of the satanic-panic mongers, Carol Deacon Aaby, tries to warn Pippa by explaining his mother's latest obsession, QROST syndrome, or "quasi-ritualized occultic sexual traumatization," but Pippa is completely overwhelmed with horror at the atrocities people will believe in. Finally, at the suggestion of a wealthy, feisty old woman named Mad Mallard, who is outraged at the spurious rumors, she escapes to a secluded cabin owned by Mad's family. Alone in the woods, exiled to "the land of winter," with no food or electricity or running water, Pippa somehow is able to renew her strength and create a sense of purpose, working magic and dedicating herself to the path of witchcraft. Her faith in herself rekindled, she emerges from hiding to deal with the unlawful and inappropriate actions of the authorities.
Grant's novel balances the chilling veracity of religious prejudice with a vividly drawn cast of larger-then-life characters, and a brilliant ear for dialogue which aptly conjures the outlandishness of Glyph, or the prepubescent rebellion of Winterbelle, or the politically correct paganspeak of Judith. Those readers who travel in circles among practitioners of earth-based religions will recognize many references from the books, events and persona that make up modern pagan culture: use of the verb grok, nostalgic memories of Starwood, mentions of bad karma, and references to "holy Llewellyn paperbacks." There are also wonderfully poetic passages full of the imagery of magic and nature, stream-of-consciousness pagan chants that punctuate Pippa's emotional state, her despair, her outrage, her empowerment, her rejuvenation.
Grant is now at work on the third novel in what he is calling a trilogy: Pippa appears briefly in Tex and Molly in the Afterlife, and the third book features the teenage Kaspian as the main character. In the Land of Winter is a wonderful read for many reasons, not the least being Grant's way with characterization: complex, unusual, and flawed people in dramatic but very plausible situations. But the writer also has a way with a story, imbuing it with sensual language and mercurial humor, giving a true and telling voice to the many worlds and levels of reality which intersect: motherhood, childhood, life on the edge, making magic, and fighting the good fight. Though some stories of religious persecution do not end so happily as Pippa's, Grant also allows readers to absorb the terrifying probability that life almost always get worse before it gets better. He invites us to cheer for a meek, introspective woman, who, in the midst of utter desolation, calls upon the power that flows through the earth and into each one of us, and finds her way through love, perseverance, and righteous anger.
Reviewed by Peg Aloi
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