Winter Reads

Shani Mootoo short listed for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Clockwise from the top left authors and their books, Cynthia Reyes, Janet Kellough, Paddy Scott, Ted Staunton, Shani Mootoo, Natalie Wollenberg and Leigh Nash

Is there a better season for reading than wintertime?

Curled up or stretched out. before a fire or wrapped in a duvet. Even bundled up outside on a rare sunny day, soaking in the precious sunlight while it lasts. Winter in our part of the world is about cold. It is about trekking through a silent snow-filled forest with towering pines stark overhead against a cerulean sky. It is about walking along a windy lakeshore where frozen waves create ice sculptures that change by the minute. And it is about getting warm after the cold, with something to read in your hands.

Six very different, very accomplished authors from our region share their personal winter stories, from survival tips for camping in the woods to the profound peace of a frozen lake in the shocking cold. And as for that something to read, they also tell us about the books they’ve written to warm the soul and brighten the dark days.

Cynthia Reyes

Winter Memory
You’d think I love winter. After all, I write about it a lot.

But often I’m complaining about it. To which my Canadian- raised husband is quick to reply, “You’re Canadian. You have to embrace winter.” He even tolerates bad winter- driving conditions, accepting them as part of the great privilege of living in this country.

Me? I came to Canada from Jamaica 46 years ago. When I first got off the plane I stood at the door, fighting the urge to run back into the warmth and fly back to Jamaica.

But I knew my future lay somewhere in this vast, cold, strange country that I had chosen to live in.

And in my own way I would learn to love winter, and some of the most important moments of my adult life would take place in the coldest season of the year. We take a chance. We plunge into the unknown land, the unexplored future. By doing so, our lives are changed forever.

Mind you: you’ll never hear me say that I love walking on snowy roads or driving on slushy and icy streets. But how grateful I am that I kept walking into that Canadian winter so many years ago. That I didn’t turn back into the comfort of the familiar.

A Good Home by Cynthia Reyes
BPS Books 2013

A Good Home was my first book, published in 2013. It was written under extraordinary circumstances, yet its raw material is the thing many take for granted: that thing we call “home.”

For me, home is a place, a memory, a feeling. Above all, it’s the people I hold dear, the ones who make me feel loved and secure. And yet, I made several life decisions that took me far away.

Writing – long letters and short memoirs – was one of the ways in which I tried to bridge that distance. There came a time, though, where it seemed that nothing could bridge the distance. How was I to know that writing would help save me yet again? It did, and the result was that first book, A Good Home.

“I knew my future lay somewhere in this vast, cold, strange country. And in my own way I would learn to love winter… some of the most important moments of my adult life would take place in the coldest season of the year.” CYNTHIA REYES


Winter Memory
In 2003, my husband was working for the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory at the southeastern tip of Prince Edward County, and throughout the winter he needed to check regularly on the state of the Observatory’s cottage. I went with him one day in January when the thermometer read -30°C. As soon as we got out of the car, I was struck by the silence. There was no traffic, no wind, no birdsong, not even the sound of waves – the lake was frozen as far as the eye could see. I had never before heard a silence so profound. It was so quiet it hurt my ears.

Sowing Poison by Janet Kellough
Dundurn 2012

Tobogganing, snowball fights, lectures, a good gossip over tea, the alternately quiet or noisy celebration of Christmas and the New Year depending on whose customs you followed – all cosy details of life in Wellington, Prince Edward County in 1844. But in Sowing Poison, the second book in the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, a nasty thread of greed and jealousy lies hidden beneath the seasonal rhythms of life in a small village. The search for a missing man leads Methodist preacher Thaddeus Lewis along a trail to attempted fraud, a tablerapper, a boy living wild on the nearby sand hills, and a case of murder skewed sadly sideways. Sowing Poison is an absorbing, creepy read that illustrates winter life in nineteenth- century Ontario, perfect for an afternoon spent curled up in a comfy chair while the winter winds howl outside.


Winter Memory
Winter is usually a sign of life slowing down in the County. It’s a time for having local fun, pulling on warm sweaters, getting the slow cooker out of the cupboard and catching up on paperwork. This year was a little different; it was the allotted time to get the food photography completed on the book that Leigh Nash and I had curated. Luckily, we had Ruth Gangbar available to do this project. We had made a studio in Ruth’s lounge room in Black River. Getting out of the car, I would carefully tread through the snowy path; off with the boots and the smell of food hit me in the face. The wood fire was going, the dishes were nearly ready to go and she had carefully laid out a rough plan of each dish. It was easy to work with Ruth, she is such a professional and great woman who exudes positivity. The days I spent with Ruth on this project, it was like the bitter cold outside didn’t exist. It was truly a time for learning, creating and working; the winter we completed a book and forged a great friendship.

County Heirlooms by Natalie Wollenberg and Leigh Nash
Invisible Publishing 2020

County Heirlooms is a new take on the traditional community cookbook, featuring contributions from Prince Edward County chefs, farmers, and food producers, with royalties from book sales supporting Food to Share, a PEC-based initiative working to address food insecurity. The book takes a personal approach, offering a glimpse into what fuels each contributor’s love for food, and what keeps them doing what they do, whether that’s tending apple trees, growing specialty tomatillos for local restaurants, or cooking up vegan feasts. Speaking of feasts, the recipes range from blue cheese dressing to chiles rellenos, and are accompanied by food photography styled by the inimitable Ruth Gangbar – inspiration for plating your own versions at home.

“Winter is usually a sign of life slowing down in the County. It’s a time for having local fun, pulling on warm sweaters, getting the slow cooker out of the cupboard and catching up on paperwork. This year was a little different…” NATALIE WOLLENBERG


Winter Survival Tips
The days will be short and the nights cold. A good tent is important. Canvas ideally. Invitations to join you will likely be declined so you’re going to be “out there” alone. The teepee style will be the most manageable. A sturdy centre pole therefore, which any decent forest should be able to provide. A sharp axe or saw goes without saying. Ground preparation will be tedious and labour-intensive, especially for one. Don’t overheat while stomping down the snow and collecting boughs for the floor. You will want to start early, earlier than you think, because once it gets dark you’ll only have yourself to blame if your tent isn’t up and you’ve gathered no wood for a fire. Lots of wood. (Again, any decent forest.) Cast iron stoves are best for radiating heat, and for cooking. They are also heavy and hard for one person to lug around. Mind your back. But once you’re inside, relatively warm, relatively full, and listening to the wind howl all around you, you will appreciate all the planning you’ve made for your time in isolation. You’ve got this. (Bring books.)

The Union of Smokers by Paddy Scott
Invisible Publishing 2020

The Union of Smokers is a day in the life and a life in the last day of twelve-year-old Kaspar Pine. It begins with trying to replace a dead canary and ends with what he believes is a “killer theme essay” on such important topics as cigarette butt collecting, chicken wrangling, and girl herding – the sorts of lessons people need in order to survive the times, especially when those times “turn squirrelly.” Kerry Clare of CBC’s Ontario Morning calls the book “tender and sad, sweet and funny… basically it is unforgettable.”


Winter Survival Tips
Winter in the countryside is gorgeous – vast rolling fields of glistening whites; backyard birds at the feeders; unex- pected brilliant clumps of leftover red summer berries. Come the raining ice, blinding blizzards, and that compulsory week of minus-thirty-degree temperatures, one can be housebound for days or weeks, perhaps without power and heat. And so based on my own techniques for surviving the bitterly cold days ahead, here is a shortlist of must-haves:

  • At least two birdfeeders and lots of seed
  • Five Little Indians by Michelle Good; Blaze Island by Catherine Bush; County author Shelagh Hurley’s Blackwater Bluff; Moby Dick by Herman Melville (read it again!)
  • Warm indoor clothing – fleece, throws and socks – alpaca?
  • A flashlight in every room (with extra batteries), a solarpowered lantern
  • A gas stove to cook on
  • Flour, yeast, spices, chocolate (in all its manifestations), sugar and coffee
  • And not least, a calm, loving relationship with your significant other, be they adult, child or pet

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo
Book*Hug Press 2020

Polar Vortex, my fifth novel, has been described in reviews as a literary thriller. Set in Prince Edward County, it is the story of a married couple, one half of which independently invites an old male friend she hasn’t seen in several years to spend the night with her and her partner. Unknown to the partner, there was once more to that old relationship than mere friendship. This visit is the catalyst for much soul searching, for secrets being revealed and lies told in an attempt to shore up a failing marriage. During the writing I became increasingly interested in exploring how even in a long marriage one can’t really know what is in the heart and mind of one’s partner. They can stand in front of you, look you in the eye as they speak, but you can’t really know what they are thinking, what they might be hiding, or if they are prevaricating. On a roll, I decided to have all the characters harbour their own secrets and motives. It is a triangle not only of intimacies, but of intentions.


Winter Memory
Until recently my family had a cottage on Lake Ontario, near Port Hope. It was a seasonal place, and as the one living closest it fell to me to check on it through the winter. I’d drive out and hike the quarter mile across a neighbour’s field. I’m not really a winter guy, but those visits were as sweet as summer ones. Stillness. Space. Snow crunching. Animal tracks looping and meandering. As I got close to the lake, the sound of the water replaced the quiet with winter’s own white noise. At the shore, a cold snap could have created an Arctic seascape of heaped and bobbing ice; a few mild days would have swept the beach clean in an illusion of early spring. How could so much change from one week to the next?

Inside, the cottage muffled the sound of the water. The wood floor would creak under my step, then everything would settle back into a stillness almost out of time, a kind of suspended animation for all but memory and anticipation, as we waited for another season to begin.

It SEEMED Like a GOOD IDEA…CANADIAN FEATS, FACTS, AND FLUBS by Ted Staunton and Will Staunton
Scholastic Canada 2020

We may only be imaginary travellers this winter, so let’s start where we really know the season. My writer/musician son Will Staunton and I have co-authored It SEEMED Like a GOOD IDEA…CANADIAN FEATS, FACTS, AND FLUBS, a compendium of ridiculous – or ridiculously ingenious – things only Canadians could dream up. We think it’s as much fun for adults as young readers. Whether it’s the etymology of “Eh,” the great Candy Strike of 1947, an atlas of Big Things or ways to get over Niagara Falls in one piece (more or less), it’s here. From the Stork Derby to corn dog poutine, it’s never routine for you and me.

Photography by:
Johnny C.Y. Lam

[Winter 2020/2021 features]