Book Review: Cold Spell

The following review appears in East Coast Ink’s fourth issue, Bridges

The difference between warmth and cold: a family’s move to the Alaskan wilderness

Book Review: Cold Spell by Deb Vanasse

It’s strange to think that a photo of a glacier pulled from the pages of a magazine could so deeply fascinate a woman from Pine Lake, Mn. For Ruth Sanders, the glacier is more than just a pretty photo framed on her bedside table; it is an opportunity to transport herself away from her broken home—and that is exactly what she does.

Deb Vanasse’s Cold Spell tells the story of Ruth and her two daughters Sylvie and Anna after their father leaves them for a new wife (and a new life). After Ruth’s boyfriend Kenny, an Alaska man, decides he wants to return home, she decides she will pick up her small family and follow along, much to the horror of 16-year-old Sylvie. Anna, her little sister, feels the opposite; a move to Alaska is a grand adventure she can’t wait to make.

Furious with her mother for moving to a place where finding friends and keeping them will be even more difficult, Sylvie feels as if no one understands her in Kenny’s small Alaskan town. Though Vanasse captures Sylvie’s need for friends and security perfectly as the family makes the big move away from her Pine Lake companions, her character is often a mystery—as much to the readers of Cold Spell as to her mother.

For example, Sylvie loves the epic poem Beowulf, comparing herself to the monster Grendel and periodically quoting memorized excerpts throughout the novel. Though an interesting fact about the troubled Sylvie, the Beowulf excerpts often fail to make an impact, as Sylvie recalls excerpts almost at random and there is often no translation from Old English. Though perhaps intending to be a beautiful characteristic, it ends up being a confusing one. Despite this, Sylvie’s character presents a stunning picture of a teenage girl struggling to find acceptance at home, in Pine Lake, or in Alaska.

The story compares Ruth’s desperation for a happier, more stable life with Sylvie’s desire to be loved and accepted by both her friends in Pine Lake and her own mother, who is too focused on securing a happy life than making a connection with her daughter. The two heartbroken women take paths that veer dangerously far away from each other, and, in the end, only a tragedy will shift Ruth’s focus away from Kenny and the glacier to her lost daughter desperate to be heard. Vanasse has a keen talent for showing the growing tension between mother and daughter, highlighting the awkward encounters within their own home in addition to their disagreements in public. Though written in third person, Vanasse changes the point of view from Ruth to Sylvie when appropriate, and it always feels like a natural shift.

And as the pair try to fit in—Sylvie reluctantly, Ruth willingly—they find out in much different ways that maybe the glacier wasn’t quite enough to create a new, happy life in Alaska. Much more is required to live in the wilderness in a small, close-knit community. Vanasse paints a true picture of this isolation for both characters; her experience as a 21-year-old living alone in the Alaskan wilderness paved the path for this kind of writing.

The glacier changes Ruth’s life for good, but maybe not in the way she would have expected. The reader gets to see a transformation in both characters that shows just how different life in Alaska is for the mother and daughter—and just how cold.

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