A Report from Winter by Wayne Courtois
A Report from Winter is a death-in-the-family story, a love story, and a meditation on the meaning of ”winter” ~ as a season and as a metaphor for family relationships.
It’s January 1998, and southern Maine is recovering from one of the worst ice storms in history. Into this unforgiving environment comes the author, flying home from Kansas City after a ten-year absence. His mother, Jennie, is dying of cancer. Though receiving excellent care in a nursing home, she has lost the ability to communicate. Needing support, Wayne makes an SOS call to Ralph, his longtime partner. Ralph boards a plane to Portland for his first exposure to a Maine winter, and to Wayne’s family as well, including a feisty aunt and an emotionally distant brother. The contrast between a nurturing gay relationship and dysfunctional family bonds is as sharp as the wind sweeping in from the sea.
Stubbornly unsentimental, A Report from Winter weaves childhood memories of winter with the harsh realities of living in a family where there’s not enough love to go around. The memoir is a tribute to hard-won relationships built on mutual trust and understanding, defying an uncaring world.
This memoir has already received high praise from numerous quarters and after reading the gripping account, I can add that it is all well deserved. This honest account is filled with memories and dreams of the author’s childhood, his first date with his partner, and his quiet dysfunctional family. Although the summary calls this book stubbornly unsentimental, I would argue that the narrative is heavily sentimental but written with a brutal, almost painful honesty that yearns for something more than the truth will allow. Either way, this stark and evocative story will grip readers as it shows the love and pain within relationships.
Although the story is about the author’s dying mother and coping with her final days, there are several asides included to keep the pace moving. This also serves to lighten the somewhat oppressive tone when recalling the painful death and indignity of illness. Here the author parallels a story of his childhood during a particularly bad snowstorm in Maine and shows how the pattern of his family is already set and not to be altered through the decades. His unhappy, perpetually disappointed mother coupled with an almost absentee father shown in stark contrast to the confused rejection of his brother, this one scene stretched out and told over the course of the book highlights several important factors. The first is the family dynamic, but more importantly, the author’s place and ultimately his discovery of his sexuality.
At the same time, the narrative shows the warm and loving relationship with his partner, Ralph, through unconditional acceptance and love. The telling is brutally honest in exposing the author’s own perceived weaknesses and faults while acknowledging that Ralph’s strength and love is essential to his happiness. If anything, the narrative is almost too stark and open. Often the negative actions, thoughts, and desires are shown blatantly and without any positive context to soften the instinctive thoughts that are all too human. Tempered somewhat by the humor and wit woven into the various remembrances, the empty and cold landscape is often reiterated in the emotions and actions of various people in the book.
The writing itself is engaging and often invites the reader to laugh or cry with the emotions and actions depicted. The honesty of various situations is never in question, as every detail is offered with a painful unveiling from the aching need to be accepted and loved in places that will never happen to relying on the warmth and care of his partner. Although this makes the story difficult to read in places, the pacing and placement of the details keeps the book from being too dark and depressing. Perhaps the saddest detail is not in the unfortunate death of his mother but in lacking that much needed acceptance that was always craved. Such simple need is portrayed in a loving, sentimental, and brutal manner creating a gripping and enthralling story.
This memoir will resonate with many as the dysfunctional, cold family is not a rare experience among readers. The inability of two gay brothers to find common ground, however painfully so, will also be recognizable just as the witty retelling of a first date will evoke emotion in even the hardest hearts. The stunning description of Maine in winter with its beauty, chill, and heart breaking cold is incredible and leaps off the page. While not always an easy book to read, the emotion and context afforded make it well worth the journey.
Get it HERE!
[Originally reviewed for Rainbow Reviews]