Title: Winter Light
Author: Martha Engber
Publisher: Vine Leaves Press
Genre: Young Adult, Fiction
Thank you to Rachel’s Random Resources and Martha Engber for the opportunity to take part in the Winter Light Blog Tour!
The Excerpt …
The book opens when events in Mary’s life force her to do what many of us don’t, reach across socioeconomic lines for help, in this case by forming a friendship with middle-class Kathleen. Though the two girls are physically near one another at school and live in the same town, they move within social groups and belong to families so different from one another that Mary and Kathleen struggle to learn one another’s language. Where Mary has little love, support or material things, Kathleen has an overabundance.
Mary suspects, but doesn’t know, how little she has until she accepts Kathleen’s offer to come over after an outing of toboganning, which Mary had never tried done before. As Kathleen’s mother, Mrs. McCarthy, drives them home, Mary is so happy, because for the first time in a long time, she’s having fun. But that soon changes.
All three took off their boots in the mudroom and hung their coats on wooden pegs. Kathleen opened the door and warm air rushed in, swaddling Mary. She squinted, the kitchen bright from a central hanging light shaped like a lantern. The walls were covered in blue-and-white-checked wallpaper. A long wooden table ran down the middle of the room. On the counter sat a cookie jar shaped liked a fat woman wearing a chef’s hat and a white apron that read, in black letters, A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.
Mrs. McCarthy put her arm around Kathleen and squeezed. “Go show her the rest of the house while I get the hot chocolate ready.”
Kathleen rested her head on her mom’s shoulder and smiled. “My mom makes really good hot chocolate.” She stood within her mother’s embrace, yet pushed away. She led Mary through the kitchen to the dining room, living room, and stairs leading to the bedrooms. While the same size as Mary’s house, this home was the opposite in every way. Instead of bare windows, curtains closed out the night. Instead of blank walls, paintings hung at intervals. The dark wood banisters gleamed and carpeting covered the floor. The limbs of the full Christmas tree sagged under pounds of silver tinsel and ornaments. Crystals hung from candleshaped lights in the bathroom on either side of a gold-framed mirror. There were photos in the hallway of Kathleen and her brother at various stages of geekdom. Books lined the bookshelves. There were stacks of clean towels in the upstairs hall closet and a medicine chest filled with aspirin, cold medicine, and Band-Aids that a mother buys to make you feel better when you’re sick, and if you’re too sick, she makes you stay in bed instead of letting you crawl to work so your next paycheck won’t be short.
When they reached Kathleen’s bedroom, Kathleen walked in while Mary remained in the doorway, staring at all that lavender: from the swirl of ruffled curtains to the bedspread and carpet. A bookshelf displayed souvenirs from past vacations. A penguin, Pink Panther, and other stuffed animals crowded the made bed, this a girlie girl’s bedroom like those on TV. Except this was worse because this was real and the people who lived here were real and their happiness was real, and that, Mary realized—but too late, too goddamn late—was what you should be afraid of.
“And this is my cat,” Kathleen said. She scooped the animal off of her bed and scratched its head. “You want to hold her?”
“I’ve got to go,” Mary said. Her lips moved, but she didn’t feel them. She turned and sailed across the upstairs hall, down the stairs, and past the shining dining room table. She curved around the refrigerator with the heart-shaped magnets. Past the wooden wall plaques with the too-cute sayings of Welcome, Willkommen, Bienvenu! Past Mrs. McCarthy.
“Mary,” Mrs. McCarthy said, the delivery almost a shout that made Mary stop and turn. Though she saw Mrs. McCarthy’s lips moving, Mary could hear almost nothing because of the clanging in her ears. “Wait,” Mrs. McCarthy said. She dug fast through a drawer of containers and pulled out a thermos.
“It’s okay—“ she said, hearing herself as an echo in her head.
“You wait,” Mrs. McCarthy said. She ladled hot chocolate into the thermos, her movements careful but urgent. “It’s made with milk. Are you allergic to milk?”
Mrs. McCarthy stuffed two marshmallows down the opening and screwed on the top. She handed the thermos to Mary.
“Take it. And some cookies,” Mrs. McCarthy said, holding up a plate. “I insist.”
Mary looked down. At a plate of frosted gingerbread men with silver candy buttons and cinnamon-dot eyes. She held her mouth firm because she would not allow herself to cry. No fucking way. She grabbed two cookies and stuffed them in her pocket.
“I can drive you,” Mrs. McCarthy said. Because she knew, didn’t she? The humiliation of such ignorance. Here you think you know how some people live and make yourself feel better by believing they aren’t as happy as they look and you aren’t as miserable as you feel. So you think, Hell, what have I got to lose. But then you trip into their world, tra-la-la, and oops, realize you’ve been wrong all along. They’re not pretending and you are.
She opened her mouth, but couldn’t speak for the enormity of what she now understood. How much closer to hell she lived than did Kathleen. Which meant Mary had to climb even higher than she thought to get out. And if she had any thoughts at least part of the way would be easy, she didn’t now. Every step would be a muscle-straining, cliff-hanging crawl. So why even try?
She turned and threw open the door to the mudroom, jammed her feet into her boots, and pulled on her coat. The screen door banged closed behind her. She strode around the house, down the driveway, and onto the sidewalk, the thermos tucked under her arm and hands stuffed into her pockets along with the cookies. She wanted to Frisbee those shitty little brown men with their silver buttons so she could watch their heads explode against a frozen tree. But they were Christmas cookies and she was starving. When in the same situation, Kathleen, if upset about how much better others lived, wouldn’t think twice. She’d fly those red-eyed bastards far as she could because she’d know there’d be something just as sweet, maybe sweeter, waiting for her at home, along with more towels, more lights, more fucking kisses on the head. A girl who could waste because she wasn’t starving for anything.
And Mary’s jaw locked. With rage, with shame. That she’d been so naïve about how they lived, those who weren’t infected. Well, fuck them and their happy oblivion.
About the Book
Fifteen-year-old Mary Donahue of suburban Chicago is a kid on the cusp of failure during the brutal blizzard winter of 1978-79, the end of a hard luck, hard rock era sunk in the cynical aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Though a smart, beautiful kid, she’s a motherless girl raised by an uneducated, alcoholic father within an extended family of alcoholics and addicts. Aware that she’s sinking, she’s desperate to save herself and so reaches out to an unlikely source, Kathleen, a nice, normal kid from English class.
But when the real storm hits, the full force of a harsh adult world almost buries Mary. Only then does she learn that the only difference between life and death is knowing when to grasp an extended hand.
About the Author
Martha Engber’s next novel, WINTER LIGHT, will be published Oct. 6, 2020, by Vine Leaves Press. She’s also the author of THE WIND THIEF, a novel, and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP. A journalist by profession, she’s written hundreds of articles for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She’s had a play produced in Hollywood and fiction and poetry published in the Aurorean, Watchword, the Berkeley Fiction Review and other journals. She’s also a freelance editor, workshop facilitator and speaker. She currently lives in Northern California with her husband, bike and surfboard.
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Happy Reading, x