When I checked out “Winter Garden” by Kristin Hannah, I was hoping for an interesting audio book to pass the hours on my recent road trip. I liked the cover, had not read any of Kristin Hannah’s work, and heard an intriguing discussion on the radio about it. Into my hands it went, along with two other audio books, just in case I needed another “read”, and off I went.
I just finished “Winter Garden” this morning as I pulled into a parking space to meet up with a friend. I didn’t want it to end and I did something I haven’t done with a book in a while. I cried those sobbing, choking tears that emerge from deep in one’s throat while reading a book. I call them my little women tears; the tears I always cry when Beth March dies.
I was thinking that “Winter Garden”, with its beautiful cover of snow, might be something for our book group come December. I’m silly that way. Snow on the cover – a good Christmas read? What a silly girl I am! This is a story within a story of love and hardship, deprivation and forgiveness.
Sisters Meredith and Nina are brought together at the death of their beloved father. On his deathbed, he asks Meredith, who lives nearby and is involved in the family’s Washington apple orchard, to take care of their mother, Anya. He asks Nina, a renowned photographer who travels the globe, to hear the untold portions of their mother’s Russian fairy tale. He requests of Anya, who was born in Russia, that she finish telling the fairy story she began when the girls were children.
As the sisters work through their grief, they struggle with their cold and distant mother – and with each other. It is in the gradual, reluctant, telling of the tale by Anya that they grow to understand her and themselves.
The sisters believe the story to be a traditional Russian folk tale; a prince and a beautiful maiden, trolls and black knights, elements that make up Russian folklore. There is more to this fairy tale, however, as it takes the reader from Washington State to Leningrad and then Alaska over a span of more than sixty years.
I’m not sure I would have continued with this book if I wasn’t listening to it on a long car ride. With twelve CD’s, I barely made it through the first six before I returned home. If I had not read a few reviewers admit that they almost gave up on the book, urging readers to keep going, I might have stopped. I’m so glad that I kept with it. So glad.
SPOILER ALERT This Russian tale inside the story is, at first, enchanting and romantic, of young lovers and poets in Leningrad. It takes a turn as the beautiful Vera’s father is arrested by trolls in a black carriage. Vera and Olga, her sister, are forced to take work in the Hermitage. There are food shortages and distrust of anyone and everyone, bombings, tragedy and unimaginable choices.
It is the fairy tale that captivated me, drew me in, deeper and deeper, as the tale unfolded with Anya’s telling of the horrors of the siege of Leningrad.
I knew of the siege. High school world history texts wrote of it, if only in a few paragraphs. My world history teacher, who had been to Russia, expounded on it, but, I really did not understand those 900 days of siege in a starving city in the coldest of Russian winters that came alive through Hanna’s writing. It left me wanting to learn more about this horrific time and place where it is estimated that one million people perished. It also made me wonder about the Russians who emigrated to Alaska and the west coast of the United States, especially after World War II.
Was Winter Garden more than an interesting cover? It surely was!