At the end of last year, back when I still went into book stores without a mask or fears of Covid, I stumbled across an enchanting novel called Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw. Its intricate cover arrested my attention – with its web of branches and roots reaching for an ominous half moon. But beyond that, its summary of a lost boy found by a witch in the woods ignited my imagination. I had to buy it.
Now, almost exactly one year later, I finally read it. With winter just begun a week ago and the cold weather starting to come in, it was the perfect time to cozy up by the fire with this spooky novel.
Winterwood takes place deep in the woods of a mountain, possibly in Oregon’s Cascades. It’s winter, and on the eve of a treacherous storm that knocked out the power, a boy went missing. Two weeks later, 17-year-old Nora Walker is out in the enchanted Wicker Woods, lit up only by the full moon, when she discovers the boy who went missing. How Oliver Huntsman survived out there that long is a mystery, and his amnesia doesn’t help clear up matters. But Nora brings him home to warm him up before returning him to the all-boys camp across the lake.
But as the days go by, things are clearly not right. It wasn’t just one boy who went missing that night; there was also a boy who died. Was he murdered? Why can’t Oliver remember anything? Or is he hiding some dangerous truths? As Nora tries to get to the bottom of it, she realizes she’s in danger, and death may not be far. And as the only woman in her family without a nightshade – a unique witch power – Nora may be powerless to save herself.
In all honesty, I actually struggled with Winterwood early on. It has a fairly slow pace at first, but more than that, I found the writing style to be distracting. Shea Ernshaw chose a sparse yet poetic narrative style, with many choppy, verbless sentences and half-thoughts. It certainly creates a particular ambience for the story, and it does build up the setting and characters. It lends the narrative a meditative and dreamlike quality, almost a stream of consciousness, and the mood works for the book. But for the first 100 pages or so, to me, it felt overdone. I almost stopped reading it, but the story was intriguing, so I pushed on. I’m glad I did.
Luckily, the action of the story started to pick up, and the poetic writing style toned down accordingly. We start to see different puzzle pieces come into the mix, and yet they’re still jumbled up. More characters come into Nora’s life – not just Oliver, the boy she found, but also a girl named Suzy and three boys who may have been involved with the death and disappearance of the other boys. New but incomplete information comes up, and with it comes a growing sense of unease and danger. What are these people capable of? Is finding out the truth worth the risk?
Winterwood works like a locked-room mystery, though in this case, they’re locked in a rural area in the forest of a winter mountain. They can’t escape to the nearest town – it’s too far and it’s too cold out – and without any electricity or cell service, they have no way of contacting the outside world. Nora’s mother is out of town and can’t come back due to the snow. Effectively, Nora and these other teens have nowhere to run. And as the mystery unfolds, the desire to escape and find help keeps growing.
The stormy winter and forested mountains make for a perfect setting. Shea Ernshaw writes them so well that you can feel the chill to your bones, hear the stillness of an isolated winter night. The forest comes to life with her deft writing; the frozen lake and wooden homes are so clear that you can sense the smoke coming from the chimneys. Though she doesn’t specify where they are, it seems to be in a remote area of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.
Throughout Winterwood, Nora Walker is followed by a bone moth, an omen foretelling death. It’s ominous and it raises the stakes – when is Nora going to die? How will it happen? At whose hands? But beyond the mortal danger it promises, it also lends a darkly magical air to the book. So, too, do the depictions of the forest, the herbal remedies in the Walker house, and even Nora’s wolfish dog, Fin.
Of course, Nora’s family is the most magical part of all. I loved the inclusions of brief histories of Nora’s various ancestors, each with her own unique life and nightshade. Each of their chapters ends with a spell, really infusing witchcraft and family history within the book. It makes Nora’s identity as a Walker more powerful and real.
Sometimes, especially early on, I found Nora’s endless mention of her own Walker family to be tedious. Again, it felt overdone. Like, I get it, you’re a Walker. Why do you keeping thinking about it and talking about it all the time? But maybe I’d be as into my own family, too, if I were a witch.
Despite that, I really liked how each of the characters was written. Nora comes across as quiet and meditative, yet she’s also proud, strong, and persistent. Oliver is filled with uncertainty and always seems like he’s this close to disappearing, but he’s also a tender and reliable character. Suzy is chaotic and unpredictable, though she’s somehow a source of warmth, too. The other boys at Oliver’s camp range from threatening to scared and weak, and they’re the wildcards of this group.
As Winterwood tangles and untangles, we finally get to two big reveals. I’m proud to say that I predicted them both! In fact, I predicted both of them early on, and grew more confident in my theories as the puzzle pieces slowly came into focus. While some people may not like it when they guess the ending, in this particular book, I actually liked that I was right about these two reveals. They were well written and unfolded perfectly, so while I saw them coming, they also felt like the most satisfying ways to end the story.
Winterwood was an odd book for me, with its rocky beginning but intriguing development and wholly satisfying ending. Usually my enjoyment of a book is more uniform, but in this case, I’m glad the story improved as I read on. It was the perfect novel for this time of year, and its enchanting themes wove themselves into my imagination. If you’re looking for a chilling, witchy mystery of murder, snowed-in forest towns, and wayward teens, Winterwood is great novel to settle in with.
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