John Ehle’s The Winter People

I was recently re-reading John Ehle’s The Winter People, one of the novels I regrettably had to omit from my “Appalachian Literature: Idea and Identity” syllabus.  It just missed the cut, and my memories of it (from about a decade ago) were fond.  I also watched the film version in which a young Kurt Russell plays the clockmaker Wayland Jackson and Kelly McGillis portrays Collie Wright, the woman at the center of the book’s pivotal conflicts.  The two versions vary greatly, and in matters of character development, I mostly preferred the novel, while in matters of sheer plottery, I favored the movie.  Probably that’s as it should be, a good screen writer can make a virtue of the necessity of thrift — trimming, melding and telescoping — but a good novelist (and Ehle is that) can reveal both the clarities and ambiguities of a personality.

What I would praise in both versions is the artists’ reluctance to portray the highland folk as backward or simple.  The narrator of Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” set in the hill country of western Virginia, says, “I remembered, too, strange stories told about these Ragged Hills, and of the uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns.”  Of course, Poe’s narrator also claims to have seen a hyena in those environs, but he was expressing the view of Appalachians that has long outlived any excuse we have for maintaining it.  Ehle certainly offers a picture of the fierce class, in this novel represented by the Campbells, who seem about as far from urbane as anyone who builds chimneys, reads scripture and hunts with firearms might be, but even among their number there are those who aspire to more than woodcrafting and roughhousing.  The Wrights constitute the other side of the spectrum, with overlap, of course.  They are presented as storekeepers, blacksmiths, led by a deeply reflective patriarch with a keen sense of the ambiguities involved where ethics are concerned.  Into the delicate truce between these two clans stumbles the widowed clockmaker, who soon falls for an unmarried Wright with an infant.  I should stop summarizing here, as mysteries which will hover for a hundred pages follow in close order.

It’s common practice to imagine mountain people, “winter people,” as lacking initiative, resistant to change, disinclined to consider or deliberate.  John Ehle is a writer dedicated to revealing Appalachians in their deliberateness, their attentiveness (which anyone who can follow a trail must have) to nuance and shading.  As in his other works  The Journey of August King and The Widow’s Trial, Ehle concentrates much of his own attention on the conversations and considerations of the characters, but he does it as much with their speech and actions as with their thoughts, so his stories never stall, even in the prolonged trials or family councils he recounts.  And when he narrates the process of a wild mountain bear hunt, he has a cinematic eye and the right word hoard to rivet even a woods-dumb reader (And the good sense to borrow some bits from Horace Kephart).

Another of Ehle’s convictions appears to be that people don’t come as Good or Bad, but as mixed.  We’re like metamorphic rock in that respect, and what we perceive will depend on how we turn a piece and where the light strikes it.  He keeps showing facet after facet, layer after layer, until he reminds us that, in the matter of 3-D language, can compete with film.  The flaw that runs through the movie is Wayland’s consistent (though not rigid) generosity and courage; he’s too much the steady pendulum that keeps the clock, the story, on time and on track.  The novel is more rewarding for revealing his shadow side, but his rendering in the film is not enough awry to spoil its suspense or authenticity.

Granted, both Ehle and screenwriter Carol Sobieski (Fried Green Tomatoes) make some compromises to assist the audience, but for a story that combines romance, violence and suspense against a backdrop of dangerously beautiful mountains (filmed in Anson County, N.C.) and hard-wrought existence, The Winter People ranks high on my list.  Its complications and refusals to take the easy path make it not just a drama but a genuine tragedy.  The film is available from Netflix and the paperback version (hardback was from Harper & Row, 1982) of the book from Down Home Press.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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