Winter’s Tale bears a distinct resemblance to the title story of Mark Helprin’s most recent collection of short stories, Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981). In “Ellis Island,” an educated European immigrant describes his reactions to the regimen of Ellis Island and his efforts to begin a new life in New York City at the turn of the century. Quickly stripped of everything he owns (including his name), the hero finds that his search for work is motivated by love, first for the strange world he has entered, second for Elise, a beautiful Danish girl stranded by her husband on Ellis Island. Pursuing his goal of obtaining permission for Elise to leave Ellis Island, the hero moves magically through several occupations, eventually making his living by writing editorials for newspapers. He finds a suitable wife and, in his desire to make life easier for her, he forgets about Elise. The story ends when he finally returns to Ellis Island to find that Elise has died after helping victims of typhoid who escaped detection in quarantine. His love for his wife, he realizes, is made more meaningful by the sacrifice of this first love, and he believes that he will be a better person by spending his life trying to atone for Elise’s death.
The interlinked themes of sacrifice and love are equally present in Winter’s Tale. Characters are frequently called on to exert themselves to their utmost for reasons that may be beyond their understanding. The hero of Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake, arrives in America because of his immigrant parents’ willingness to sacrifice their own happiness. Having traveled to Ellis Island, the parents are told that they will be sent back to Europe because they have tuberculosis, and so they entrust Peter to the sea in a model of the steamer on which they traveled to Ellis Island. This act changes their lives utterly; when, after their baby floats away, “they took one another in their arms it was unlike anything they had ever done before, for it was the end.” Later, Peter himself must sacrifice his life in order to be reunited with his dead wife. He begs his worst enemy to kill him—“Drive hard”—understanding that love will effect a reconciliation which no facts can verify.
This faith in sacrifice destines Helprin’s characters, like William Shakespeare’s in The Winter’s Tale (1611), to experience miracles if they are willing to learn from their mistakes. Both works are romances that explore the thematic possibilities of resurrection. In both, characters discover their capacity for goodness as they experience remorse for past errors; this hard-earned self-knowledge is rewarded by a reunion with a loved one who has been thought to be dead. Leontes, Shakespeare’s wrongheaded king, recovers his wife and daughter; Peter Lake ascends to share the heavens with Beverly. The works are also similar in other ways. In each, more than one plot is being developed simultaneously; by the end of each, all plots are shown to be related. Both works also make metaphorical use of the stormy winter weather to suggest death and rebirth.
Rich in literary resonances, Winter’s Tale is more than Shakespeare translated into fiction, more than an expanded short story. Although the thematic similarities are clear, Helprin attempts more than a romance or a compact vision of an immigrant’s response to a new culture. He is fascinated with history, and much of his gift as an author depends on his ability to create a vivid sense of place. Winter’s Tale is a comprehensive fantasy about New York City. By seeing the city as a crucible for refining human nature, Helprin identifies the best of man’s achievements and the worst of his errors and attempts an expansive moral essay on man’s purpose in life. Peter Lake, as the hero who does not recognize his own importance, claims that the vital elements of existence are “movement, courage, laughter, and love”; in addition, Helprin might add color, shape, freedom, and the human desire to strive for perfection despite repeated failures. This book is about hope and faith and the city’s ability to bring out the finest, as it foils the worst, qualities in in its residents’ natures.
The fantasy spans two centuries. Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, the action encompasses winter sports familiar to the original Dutch residents of New York, the exploitation of children in the workplace and on the street, the ravages of disease, and the harsh realities of immigration. After being lowered into the ocean, Peter’s boat drifts into the Jersey marshes of the Baymen, a tribe of aborigines who raise him and send him to New York City when he enters adolescence. Thus begins a new life which is to include intimate acquaintance with the machines of the twentieth century, burglary, a century of war with the Short Tails (a gang devoted to stupidity and casual evil), a passionate love affair with a tubercular heiress, and the miraculous resurrection of the dead child Abby Marratta. Perhaps the most fantastic elements of this vaguely historical nineteenth century are Peter’s horse Athansor, a milk horse that escapes from his daily round in Brooklyn to fly (literally) with Peter before the Short Tail gang, and the cloud wall, a mysterious atmospheric disturbance surrounding New York City. In a desperate escape from the Short Tails, Peter flies through the cloud wall with Athansor, an act that displaces him in time and catapults him into the end of the twentieth century with no memory of his former life.
(The entire section is 2290 words.)