Written by Lauryn Smith
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I began reading Craig Larsen’s “The Second Winter,” a fictitious story that takes place during World War II. I was confident that the book would be interesting. (Anyone who knows me knows that historical fiction is right up my alley.) I feared, though, that the book would be only marginally original, that it would not stand out among the many others also set during wartime. It was not long before I realized how wrong my latter expectation was.
Larsen expertly differentiates “The Second Winter” by narrowing his scope, homing in on often overlooked subtleties inherent to this anecdote-ridden part of history. With a downtrodden family at the heart of the novel, Larsen emphasizes strained familial relationships and details the twists and turns of fate that are generated by various interpersonal interactions. The war merely acts as a backdrop, a driving force. This unexpected approach makes for a deep, fulfilling read as the plot is enhanced by the setting rather than carried by it. (A special thanks to the author for providing me a copy of the book!)
Dark and dismal, “The Second Winter” takes place in 1941 in German-occupied Denmark. Fredrik Gregersen, a large, callous, imposing man who oversees a small farm in Jutland, partakes in a prohibited side business, namely helping Jewish fugitives cross the border into Sweden. One night, he is presented with an opportunity to steal a satchel of valuable jewelry from a family of escapees, which he does without a second thought. Contained in that satchel is an expensive necklace, which ends up being a key element of the story. The plot thickens with each transfer of ownership of the necklace.
Fredrik is hands down the most noteworthy character. He is flawed in nearly every sense. Despite the need to support his son and daughter, who both toil mercilessly to support the family, he favors drugs, alcohol and the occasional female companion, despite the cost, both monetary and otherwise. He also frequently succumbs to his violent temperament. Despite all this, he is easy to sympathize with, especially as the story progresses. Larsen illustrates him vividly. And though it may be difficult to discern, his flaws are haloed by positive affections and efforts, which imperceptibly work to evoke compassion in the reader.
That said, not all characters are as intriguing as Fredrik. Another important character is Polina, a young girl from Krakow who is forced to live a life of prostitution. Larsen does well to bring life to most characters, even secondary ones, but Polina’s persona is somewhat lacking. Her story begins well and fosters a sense of familiarity. We get depictions of her childhood and her separation from her family, and we learn of a singular mysterious photograph of which she is the subject. But from then on, she is flat, turning distant and unknowable. It takes the event of the necklace linking her to the Gregersens to really establish her as vital to the storyline. In the end, she is not a sympathetic character, despite having the potential to be one. Perhaps Polina’s remoteness is intentional. Maybe Fredrick is intended to be the sole commanding personality. If this is the case, Larsen is unarguably successful. As I read, I did not want to like Fredrik, but I could not help but develop a sense of affection for him.
The complexity of Larsen’s approach to telling this story adds another facet of intrigue. He juxtaposes the 1941 tale with an associated one that takes place years later. This additional storyline is peppered between segments of the principal storyline. Though the multifaceted nature of “The Second Winter” initially comes across as a little messy, all parts ultimately conclude in a chilling, gratifying manner. The book is definitely worth a second read, or at the very least a deliberate first read, in order to both avoid confusion and to fully grasp the relationships between and suffering of the host of characters Larsen introduces.
Perhaps the most noteworthy part of “The Second Winter” is Larsen’s voice, which is refreshingly unique and effortless. If nothing else, “The Second Winter” is worth reading for an introduction to Larsen’s prose. He does not include scenes for the sake of convenience (a pet peeve of mine); rather, each point he writes has true, meaningful purpose. His writing style is simple and effective, and particular turns of phrase are purely fun and clever. One of my favorites is, “All day, the sky had crumbled into the streets.” Also good is, “Weak headlights burned holes in the mist.” Imagery at its finest.
“The Second Winter” will certainly enhance readers’ understanding of WWII. I, for instance, gathered much about the German occupation in Denmark, such as the agreement between the Danish government and Adolf Hitler’s army as well as the Danish resistance. I think others will glean a lot, too. The heavy context complements Larsen’s discussion of the complexities of fatherhood amidst harsh realities. Mankind is a complex species, and Larsen sheds light on the subject. Though admittedly not suitable for young readers (the book is a touch too gritty and tragic), I highly recommend “The Second Winter.” Shrouded in a sense of mystery and culminating with a satisfying resolution, “The Second Winter” will stick with you. I look forward to reading more of Larsen’s works.
Title: The Second Winter
Author: Craig Larsen
Publisher: Other Press
Publication date: September 27, 2016
Page count: 368
List price: $25.95
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