‘The Winter Family’ by Clifford Jackman

Book Reviews

The Winter FamilyReviewed by Will J. Fawley

Some works of historical fiction bring the past to life and enable us to better understand the lives of those who came before; others merely recount events. The best historical fiction offers up something that neither the past nor present could provide on their own: a synthesis of historical knowledge, and a modern perspective on the ramifications of the events that transpired from that point in time until now.

Clifford Jackman is a practicing lawyer, and the author of two short story collections. The Winter Family is his second novel and his first foray into the Western genre. The novel has received much acclaim, and has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, and named a Globe 100 Book. This success is due in part to its breadth—a vast story that is set in a wide range of times and places, beginning in 1864, and taking the reader across the United States during the American Civil War, and later through a country changed by that war.

As it is focused on a time of tension between Europeans, African Americans, Indians, and Mexicans, race is a major factor in this novel. While offering an often painfully accurate depiction of racism in the nineteenth century, The Winter Family offers a diverse cast of characters spanning several races and nationalities. The prologue alone introduces a black man, an Indian, a disabled boy, and a 50-year-old, setting the tone for a novel that is obviously written from the twenty-first century perspective of globalization and inclusivity. And as the novel grows in scope and setting, it introduces countries, cities, towns, and the wide spaces between pockets of civilization. While always accurate to the time period, the racism in the novel made me cringe at times, particularly when stereotypes took the stage, such as the alcoholic Indian, the strong black man, the scalping Indians. These characters are all believable in the context of the story, but they would have been more palatable and memorable had they not conformed to racial stereotypes.

The prologue introduces the gang of outlaws calling themselves the Winter Family—think classic Clint Eastwood Western meets a gritty blood-splattered Tarantino film. The novel may be a mash-up of genres (the inside cover describes it as a Western noir) and has been marketed as a fast-paced, violent romp through moral depravity, but there is no mistaking that this is a literary novel full of wonderful prose and philosophical questions about human nature.

Augustus Winter, the leader and namesake of the Winter Family, is both a practical man, and a mysterious one—not just to others, but to himself as well. Throughout the novel, he is constantly reinventing himself. Midway through the story, he stops to examine himself in a mirror:

The suit, indeed, fit him well. It clung to him tightly but it was still composed of crisp, straight lines. As if it had hardened him, made him into something geometric. Unnaturally clean. An entirely new thing… This was it. This was what he had been looking for all his life without realizing it. This look, this studied, practiced, contrived look, was the truest outward expression of his inner being.

Winter is painfully aware that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of humanity; the concept of civilized society is deathly offensive to his individualistic sensibilities. The tone of the novel radiates Winter’s nihilism and moral indifference, and the prose itself has a Hemingway-esque quality that is simple yet refined, and often beautiful. In one of the most memorable scenes of the novel, in which Winter is tortured by drowning, the contrast of the horrendous scene and the beautiful language screams from the page: “He’d been prepared for this moment, this pain, this darkness. He was ready. All they were doing was baptizing him. Pushing him further and further into the man he was going to be.” Here, Winter is forged into the man he becomes, by defying his own suffering and rejecting the urge to give up.

Along with Bill Bread, the aforementioned alcoholic “Indian” who plays a pivotal role in the novel, Quentin makes up another one of the major players in the Winter Family. Where Winter is resolved in his disdain for civilization and its expansion, Quentin is maniacal and downright cruel. Quentin’s philosophy is complex and unstable. He often waxes philosophical, ranting about big ideas such as the nature of infinity. He kills because he finds a certain sick joy in it, and he relishes war because it justifies his actions and gives him an excuse to ignore not just the law of the land, but moral law as well. Quentin is in awe of the universe and how vast and confoundingly complex it is, and he finds a sort of comfort in the simple brutality of war, destruction, and death. “The laws of war are as true as the principles of the multiplication tables,” he says.

The novel’s structure is also of note. After a prologue that gives the reader a glimpse into the later years of the Winter Family, the first of four major sections begins. These four sections, as well as the prologue and epilogue, are conveniently labeled by location and date. This structure serves not only as a welcome guide for the reader to locate him or herself in a complex, sweeping story that spans decades, but also as a reminder of the division of the U.S. at the time. This format also serves to highlight the contrast between the geographical areas of established states, territories, and places both pre- and post-war, which are perhaps more strikingly different than the city versus the wilderness settings.

Too much detail about these sections would spoil the plot, but it is worth mentioning that each section is ruled by a strong theme. The first section, “Georgia,” takes place during the Civil War. The Winter Family forms and thrives during this lawless, ruthless time. After the war, the story moves to Chicago. This section provides the reader with a glimpse into gritty post-war politics, dirty elections, and the overall fallout of war and its impact on the Winter Family. Perhaps most notable is the fear Winter, Quentin and the others feel at the impending sense of order, and worse, morality, that is slowly returning to the world. Next, we move on to Phoenix, which in 1881 is a newly incorporated city, and is as wild as it gets. This setting in the outskirts of civilization allows the novel to slow down a bit, and Jackman unleashes some philosophical thoughts about nature versus civilization that have been building between the lines up to this point. Finally, the novel moves back to where it began, in Oklahoma, toward the turn of the twentieth century. This section simultaneously builds and unravels, until the events of the prologue come into context and the story reaches a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, The Winter Family is a novel about civilization versus nature and the individual. This theme is strong throughout as Augustus Winter fights his own private war against the expansion of civilization.

Jackman uses a time-tested genre to tell a twenty-first century story. Inevitably, the struggle between being true to nineteenth century life without alienating a modern audience sometimes haunts the pages of this book, but overall, Jackman walks a tight-rope between the two, and then ties it into a noose to hang convention. While wrapped in a Western package, The Winter Family transcends genre, belonging with the best literature of early America, such as Mark Twain and Willa Cather, right alongside the work of established Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe.

Random House | 352 pages | $21.00 | paper | ISBN# 9780345814807

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Will J. Fawley

Will holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His short fiction recently appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine and his poetry has appeared in Literati Magazine. Will worked on his first novel with Duncan Thornton during the 2013 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program.