IN HIS NATIVE North Carolina, John Ehle has been a writer to be reckoned with for about a quarter-century: not merely as the author of novels and works of nonfiction, but also as a prominent spokesman for the arts in a state where they have been given unusual attention by government and business. But like a number of writers elsewhere--people of comparable accomplishment and distinction, such as Thomas Savage in Maine, Ellen Douglas in Mississippi and Don Carpenter in California--he has never quite managed to find the national audience he deserves.
In a just world, publication of The Winter People would rectify that; it is a lovely novel--quiet, forceful, serious but never solemn, old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. But this is not a just world, and there is simply no way of knowing whether Ehle will, with what is unquestionably his best book, at last be properly recognized. He is not a flashy writer, he deals with people and a place that may seem remote to many readers, he makes no gestures to literary fashion. He is merely good, which these days too often is not enough.
The Winter People is set in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression. A clockmaker from the North, Wayland Jackson, 34 years old and recently widowed, is driving with his 12-year-old daughter to Tennessee, where he proposes to go into business. But he gets lost in the Carolina mountains, where he encounters a young woman named Collie Wright and asks her to "let us warm, and maybe feed us." She hesitates:
"Collie thought she ought to send them on down the road to the community. She shouldn't endanger herself with strangers, and she shouldn't endanger that man this way; (her baby's) father wouldn't like any man being here, even for a while. She ought to send him along, but he was a tame, gentle man, and his daughter had a pet pig, and all they wanted was to warm. After all, it was her house, her time, her loneliness, which had been an all-day plight for her, and was her right to offer him hospitality."
She does, and so begins an involvement that soon becomes more intense and complicated than she had bargained for. Jackson and his daughter take up residence in an out-building on her place, and he sets up shop in a corner of her family's general store. He is powerfully attracted to her, and she to him, but she denies him her bed; she has borne one illegitimate child, she does not want another, and in any event she fears the reaction of the baby's father, a violent young fellow who is away but may return at any moment.
It is the prospect of the father's return that gives the novel its tension and sense of foreboding, that provides a dangerous presence even when the life of the little community seems most tranquil and happy. When at last he does return, he sets off a series of events in which many lives are altered and Wayland Jackson is forced to make a terrible decision:
"During the night the wash of depression came over Wayland as well. It had been easier during the day while he had been given decisions to make and was the center of activity; now he was isolated and had begun to tear himself away from the one woman, the one place he wanted. Leaving was for him a form of dying, he told himself. Last spring he had moved close to despair after his wife walked away to die. He had been shocked away from living his own life. Here he had emerged from that stupor, but now, tomorrow, he was again to fall backward, to break himself once more, and go staggering in a daze about the countryside."
Well, not necessarily. Collie, a strong and resourceful woman, feels an obligation "to complete what she had started." The action she decides upon entails considerable sacrifice and brings the novel to a surprising conclusion; yet it is one that most readers are likely to regard as entirely fitting, and consistent with the novel's themes.
But The Winter People is much more than the story of a woman and two men. At one level it is about the mountains, which are as vivid a presence in Ehle's work as any person; Jackson sees them as a world that is "far off and different, has its own air, different from the others, and the creeks wash, rush more than rivers, seem to be beating themselves on the rocks, and laughing at us." At another it is about loss and renewal, as experienced by Collie and Wayland and ultimately the entire community. At still another it is about families, about the fragile yet durable ties that we establish among ourselves--a novel that says "the only choice a man ever had in life was to decide what sort of slavery to accept, and that determining to be free was the worst slavery of all."
Ehle's people, all of them, are splendid. Collie, her emotions seesawing as she tries with mounting frustration to keep her life on an even keel, is a person of striking good humor and endearing independence of mind. Wayland, gentle and decent and wry, has a strength that is as quiet as the novel's. Each of Collie's three brothers emerges, quickly yet subtly, as a clearly definable individual and, at the same time, a member of a family that is itself a clearly definable entity.
This is a novel about mountain people, with an absolutely sure grasp of mountain ways. A bear hunt--a prolonged scene that Ehle carries off with confidence, betraying no fear that Faulkner is looking over his shoulder--serves as the ritual by which an initially reluctant Wayland is drawn into the mountain community and the Wright family. Later, the preparation of a body for burial becomes another folk rite, one that Ehle describes with loving attention to detail and a certain affectionate amusement. He handles the Hatfields-and-McCoys feud between the Wrights and their neighbors, the Campbells, with a fine appreciation for nuance, a refusal to resort to quaintness or clich,e, and a sure knowledge of the customs and subleties involved.
Ehle's prose is exactly suited to his subject and setting. His people talk the way North Carolina mountain people talk; there is nothing stilted or artificial about his dialogue. And his descriptive prose is quite marvelous; it has an air of country formality and mannerliness that is thoroughly distinctive.
Like Ehle's other novels, The Winter People is modest in its claims; it is about ordinary (yet remarkable) est in its claims; it is about ordinary (yet remarkable) people in an ordinary (yet breathtaking) place. That is true to life, as fiction should be, but not to the standards usually set by the best-seller lists on the one hand or the academics on the other. In its modest way, though, The Winter People is a very substantial piece of work: thoroughly rewarding and satisfying in every important respect.