Winter Reading

Here in North Carolina, we’re at the tail end of what our weather people were calling a “snow event”–about five or six inches, now turning to slush, which caused two days of school closings (so far). I’ve enjoyed being snowed in–lots of reading and cooking and walks to the river–and was thinking about how much I like reading about extreme weather, especially cold, snowy weather.

Though many short story writers will quickly tell you they’re working on a novel (Ray Carver used to do this, in fact), one great thing about a short story is that you can reread it whenever it occurs to you. I like to keep some of my favorite short story collections near me for just this purpose, and one of my favorite extreme-weather stories is “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen. It’s in his 1989 collection, Nebraska, and tells the story of the Great Plains blizzard of 1888, when a surprise storm stranded hundreds of farmers and ranchers and teachers and schoolchildren, killing many and sparing some who survived on luck or wits. The details of this story are especially fine, and the pacing is swift and vicious, like the storm:

Axel looked toward Dakota, and there half the sky was suddenly gray and black and indigo blue with great storm clouds that were seething up as high as the sun and wrangling toward him at horse speed. Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog. […] Although his sod house was but a quarter-mile away, it took Axel four hours to get there. Half his face was frozen gray and hard as weatherboarding so the cattleman was speechless until nightfall, and then Axel Hansen simply told his wife, That was not pleasant. (from “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen)

I love the way Hansen’s gift for vivid, surprising language matches the subject matter, and the way the dramatic scenes are undercut by his laconic characters. The story also has a terrific nonfiction pairing: The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin, which was published in 2005 and examines the storm and the lives and histories of the Plains settlers in greater detail. Read very literally, both works can support a cautious approach to school closings, something my brother Sky (a history teacher who makes the most of every snow day) would certainly appreciate.

Do you have favorite storm stories? Or poems?

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