Like her more recent book The Night Sister, The Winter People is set in Vermont. It takes place in two time periods, the present and 1908.
In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea lives with her husband and daughter on a barren farm near a landmark called the Devil’s Hand. Sara was raised by a Native American woman she calls “Auntie,” whom the nearby villagers visit for potions and spells. We know from the beginning of the novel that she died a terrible death and that parts of her story are recorded in her diary, which has pages missing. In the village of West Hall there have long been legends of “Sleepers,” people who are brought back from the dead.
In the present time, teen Ruthie returns late from a date to find her mother, Alice, gone. When Alice hasn’t returned by the next day, Ruthie and her little sister Fawn begin looking through the house for clues to where she has gone. In a series of hidey holes, they find some strange things, a gun and the wallets of two people from Connecticut. Since the countryside around West Hall is known for people’s disappearances and the Devil’s Hand at the edge of the farm is supposedly haunted, Ruthie begins wondering what her mother could be involved in and doesn’t call the police.
Katherine is grieving the death of her husband, Gary. He had been distraught since the death of their son, but recently things seemed to be better. Then he told her he was going to Cambridge to photograph a wedding but died in a car accident in Vermont. What was he doing there? When Katherine gets back his charge receipts, she finds he ate lunch in West Hall, so she decides to move there to try to find out what Gary was up to.
McMahon builds up quite a bit of suspense in this novel, often from small things like the tapping on a closet door. The novel centers around a series of grief-stricken people and the belief that people can come back from the dead. Can they? And if so, in what form?