Jonathan Yardley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

[John Ehle] has never quite managed to find the national audience he deserves.

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In a just world, publication of The Winter People would rectify that; it is a lovely novel—quiet, forceful, serious but never solemn, old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. But this is not a just world, and there is simply no way of knowing whether Ehle will, with what is unquestionably his best book, at last be properly recognized. He is not a flashy writer, he deals with people and a place that may seem remote to many readers, he makes no gestures to literary fashion. He is merely good, which these days too often is not enough.

The Winter People is set in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression. A clockmaker from the North, Wayland Jackson, 34 years old and recently widowed, is driving with his 12-year-old daughter to Tennessee, where he proposes to go into business. But he gets lost in the Carolina mountains, where he encounters a young woman named Collie Wright and asks her to "let us warm, and maybe feed us."…

She does, and so begins an involvement that soon becomes more intense and complicated than she had bargained for. Jackson and his daughter take up residence in an out-building on her place, and he sets up shop in a corner of her family's general store. He is powerfully attracted to her, and she to him, but she denies him her bed; she has borne one illegitimate child, she does not want another, and in any event she fears the reaction of the baby's father, a violent young fellow who is away but may return at any moment.

It is the prospect of the father's return that gives the novel its tension and sense of foreboding, that provides a dangerous presence even when the life of the little community seems most tranquil and happy. When at last he does return, he sets off a series of events in which many lives are altered…. (p. 3)

Collie, a strong and resourceful woman, feels an obligation "to complete what she had started." The action she decides upon entails considerable sacrifice and brings the novel to a surprising conclusion; yet it is one that most readers are likely to regard as entirely fitting, and consistent with the novel's themes.

But The Winter People is much more than the story of a woman and two men. At one level it is about the mountains, which are as vivid a presence in Ehle's work as any person…. At another it is about loss and renewal, as experienced by Collie and Wayland and ultimately the entire community. At still another it is about families, about the fragile yet durable ties that we establish among ourselves—a novel that says "the only choice a man ever had in life was to decide what sort of slavery to accept, and that determining to be free was the worst slavery of all."

Ehle's people, all of them, are splendid. Collie, her emotions seesawing as she tries with mounting frustration to keep her life on an even keel, is a person of striking good humor and endearing independence of mind. Wayland, gentle and decent and wry, has a strength that is as quiet as the novel's. Each of Collie's three brothers emerges, quickly yet subtly, as a clearly definable individual and, at the same time, a member of a family that is itself a clearly definable entity.

This is a novel about mountain people, with an absolutely sure grasp of mountain ways…. [Ehle] handles the Hatfields-and-McCoys feud between the Wrights and their neighbors, the Campbells, with a fine appreciation for nuance, a refusal to resort to quaintness or cliché, and a sure knowledge of the customs and subtleties involved.

Ehle's prose is exactly suited to his subject and setting. His people talk the way North Carolina mountain people talk; there is nothing stilted or artificial about his dialogue. And his descriptive prose is quite marvelous; it has an air of country formality and mannerliness that is thoroughly distinctive.

Like Ehle's other novels, The Winter People is modest in its claims; it is about ordinary (yet remarkable) people in an ordinary (yet breathtaking) place…. The Winter People is a very substantial piece of work: thoroughly rewarding and satisfying in every important respect. (pp. 3, 14)

Jonathan Yardley, "Love Affairs and Family Feuds in the Smoky Mountains," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), March 7, 1982, pp. 3, 14.

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