Tuesday, December 25, 2018

November's Book: The Winter Family

The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman
Western (2015 - 332 pp.)

Here it is: the first Western in the history* of this blog!

The Winter Family tracks a group of outlaws through their career as a gang in the Wild West. The book is divided into six parts, listed below. The outlaws centre on Quentin Ross, a lieutenant in the Union army in the Civil War who quickly turns out to be a psychopathic killer and pathological liar; Augustus Winter, the golden-eyed killer; and other characters including the Empire brothers, (part of) the Shakespeare brothers, German immigrant Jan Mueller, and Quentin's brother Noah Ross. Clifford Jackman is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School (2008) who, according to the dust jacket, now lives in Guelph, Ontario. Those are all close things to my heart.
  1. Prologue: Oklahoma 1889
  2. Georgia 1864
  3. Chicago 1872
  4. Phoenix 1881
  5. Oklahoma 1891
  6. Epilogue: California 1900
The eponymous "Winter family" isn't a literal family, nor is any other character but Augustus named Winter. Quentin Ross's posse originates during Sherman's march to the sea in 1864. Winter is a young recruit but he elevates himself from the start, becoming equal to (or possibly greater than) Ross as the novel wears on. Winter and Ross enter into a quasi-rivalry, with Winter being the nominal leader while Ross leads any preemptive strikes. Winter was recruited into Ross's platoon almost at random (21) but then Winter becomes an informed hero later in the book (265). The best comparison is Marlfox, with Winter being Mokkan and Ross being Gelltor.

Jackman makes a few extremely accurate historical points. Winter is waterboarded during his Civil War campaign (57), which surprised me because I hadn't thought of waterboarding as being common until the 2000s, but there's a historical precedent for it from the Civil War era. As early as 1852, the New York Times reported on "hydrological" torture, and, yes, it was controversial even back then. Equally realistically, Noah Ross is the leading figure behind Winter, Ross and the rest supporting the Republicans during the violence-fraught Chicago municipal election of 1872. Noah made enough money to bankroll multiple properties by shorting insurance companies right before the Great Chicago Fire. (182-183)

The Winter Family's aesthetic is dark, foreboding and limiting. The Winter family consists of outlaws who don't fit properly into an organized state. Ironically, that helps them serve in the Union army and then help fix a Chicago election, but they quickly run out of territory. They have Arizona and then only Oklahoma, which was commonly called "Indian Territory" in the late 1800s, where they can operate. Eventually, they have no territory, which leads to their last stand in "Oklahoma 1891".

For all that goes into the Winter family interfering in the 1872 Chicago election - it's the only part that's over 100 pages - he never tells the reader how the election ends. That wondering about the result of the fictional election ate me as I read the rest of the book. It's also questionable just how quickly Jan enters Mickey Burns's Democrat-backing hustle crew during that election campaign, as Jan appears to be a close confidant of a major player within mere days. (134) There is the oft-seen "hanged/hung" error (230); remember the old rule, "people and hanged, pictures are hung". Finally, although I love that "Oklahoma 1891" starts with Ross in federal prison, and it's certainly understandable how all his larcenies** and murders would have landed him there, I would have loved to have known why. A shootout between Ross and U.S. Marshals in circa 1885 would have made for a fascinating scene, even one only as long as the 8-page epilogue.

The Winter Family is a historically accurate Western that makes the reader turn its pages just as fast as an airport thriller.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 1

*I launched the blog on March 24, 2012, so it's been a long time without a Western.

**This is the only time I've ever pluralized this word.

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