Book Review: Winterkill, by Kate A. Boorman

She lives inside a community with rigid rules, bound by the safety of a stockade fence that keeps the residents safe from a vague and unknown evil that sits outside. Those who don’t adhere to the community virtues of Honesty, Discovery, and Bravery are Wayward, and at risk of being punished. The ultimate punishment is to be cast out to the Crossroads, a set of iron cages deep in the woods where people are abandoned to be, presumably, consumed by the evil that lies beyond the gates. Emmeline, however, dreams of something more. She wants to prove Discovery in a new way.

Kate A. Boorman’s Winterkill takes us deep into a world of alternate, twisting history. European settlers have arrived in North America and pushed Native communities to the west, but something is stalking them along with the First Peoples; a disease that ravages towns, settlements, and more, whipping through livestock and people alike. Thus, people have withdrawn from many formerly inhabited areas, leaving isolated communities, like Emmeline’s, behind. They have lived deep in the forest, carving out a living and waiting for help, for a very long time…and Emmeline is Stained by the Waywardness of her grandmother.

Within the settlement, the community is mixed between white, English-speaking Europeans, those descended from French settlers, and remaining First Peoples. They speak a mixture of languages, with some sticking more to one language than another — Emmeline struggles with French, for example, even as she understands a sprinkling of First Nations words. These languages are woven into the text, with Emmeline sometimes translating for the reader, and sometimes not. Together, they know that they will survive, but alone, they will perish.

The community is overseen by the Council, headed by Brother Stockham, who keeps a tight fist over the settlement through enforcing extreme piety, bringing the Wayward in line, and keeping what he views as order through the Watch (who stalk the walls to keep the community safe). As the story progresses, Stockham and the Council become more and more sinister, while Emmeline struggles to understand the secrets of her community and to emerge from the legacies of her family.

In many ways, Emmeline is a very frustrating character. As often happens in YA, she’s set apart from the other characters in a way that can become grating, imbued with seemingly magical characteristics — the special family legacy, the unique sense of curiosity. She’s also involved in a (predictable) love triangle, but it’s one with a twist, thankfully. One of the legs of a triangle may be interested in her, but she’s not interested in him, primarily seeing him as a threat to herself. She recognises that his interest in her is complicated and bound up in other issues, and while she submits to him because he’s in a position of power, she’s certainly not in love with him by any stretch of the imagination.

She’s also a disabled character, which I didn’t realise when I picked the book up. In childhood, she was injured when an axe (blunt side down) was dropped on her foot, crushing the bones. In a community with limited medical treatments available, that meant effectively that she was forced to live with a mess of painful, partially-healed fractures for the rest of her life, with substantial tissue scarring and partial necrosis — she describes her foot as ‘blackened’ at numerous points in the text.

At times, the book seems a bit over the top in terms of describing her disability and her hatred of it, but in fairness, it’s also a reflection of the setting. A woman with a mobility impairment wouldn’t be viewed as useful in a community like this one, and thus, perhaps it’s not surprising that Emmeline experiences that pressure and that it contributes to her sense of self-hatred. It also becomes an issue when she needs to run or engage in activities that require her to be nimble, which is definitely a concern when she’s exploring the woods in search of the truth.

She doesn’t use a cane, crutches, or other mobility aids. Emmeline is left to her own devices, forced to make do with her own body, and at times, she uses her disability to punish herself — leaning on her bad side, for example, to cause pain to shoot through her foot in the mistaken impression that she needs to force physical pain upon herself to make good for her perceived sins. At other times, we see how her lack of mobility frustrates and angers her; when her foot twists as she’s running and she falls or winces with pain, for example.

Handling disability in a situation like this is complicated, because while you don’t want the author to fall into the trap of presenting disability as a tragedy, you also respect the setting. Emmeline is living in a world where physical abilities are highly valued, and those without mobility impairments are considered superior because they’re perceived as having more to offer their community. She’s also, though, wrapped up in her selfish perception of the past and the way the community looks at her, and thus overstates her assumption that everyone hates her and devalues her because of her Wayward traits and because of her disability. When you live in a world where disability is regarded negatively, whether it’s the real world or a dystopian one, it’s not surprising when you start to develop the sense that you are worthless and everyone is judging you, and Boorman showed that well.

While I don’t give the handling of Emmeline’s disability perfect marks (and when do I ever — and of course I don’t speak for all disabled people everywhere), nor do I think the book is completely solid in terms of worldbuilding and storylines, there are many things about it I enjoy, and it made for a fun read.

Sometimes, that’s all you need.