When my younger son was a child, there was a book he and I used to read together every year around this time, “Something Is Going to Happen,” by the great children’s writer Charlotte Zolotow. It was the story of a family — mother, father, little boy, little girl, and dog — waking up on a cold November morning. The wind is whining, the bare tree branches are tapping against the window. “Something is going to happen,” each of them thinks. “I feel it.” The people get ready for work and school, the dog sniffs the air; the prose evokes the smell of coffee and muffins, the dishes rattling in the kitchen, all with this quiet sense of anticipation that something is different this morning, something is going to happen. Finally as they open the door to go out into the day they see what it is: snow.
You could put together an entire winter library of gorgeous classics in which snow and ice play a major part. In Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” the heroine’s doomed love affair begins on a train platform in the middle of a blizzard. Anna has gotten off the train during a brief stop for a breath of fresh air when she is approached by Vronsky, the cavalry officer who has fallen in love with her. He tells her he has been riding on the train simply to be near her, that he can’t help himself. At that moment the wind, “as if it had surmounted all obstacles,” becomes even more violent, but Anna is not alarmed; in fact, in her eyes “all the awfulness of the storm now appeared more beautiful than ever.”
Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” is set entirely in a winter landscape: the bleak frozen hills of western Massachusetts around 1900, amid fields whose boundaries are lost beneath snowdrifts, where “huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, [is] one of those lonely New England farm houses that make the landscape lonelier.” The only warm thing in these grim surroundings is the love between the farmer Ethan Frome and the girl Mattie who helps Frome’s invalid wife with household chores. When the wife grows suspicious and orders the girl to leave, the frozen landscape becomes not only a metaphor for the hopelessness of these lives, but also the instrument of a tragedy.
Francis Spufford’s “I May Be Some Time” takes its title from the last words spoken by Captain Oates, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1910-12 South Pole expedition. The book, a literary exploration of British polar explorations, is more than just a history of geographical travels; it’s a voyage into the psyches of men for whom these expeditions were the ultimate test of character, even of nobility. Oates spoke with stunningly laconic gallantry, as he limped out of the tent into a blizzard, hoping that his death would leave enough food for his stranded comrades to survive.
Snow fell last week in Buffalo, N.Y. Six feet of it. Buffalo has always been a snowy city but this kind of dramatic snow dump is actually part of an alarming recent pattern that has to do with the climate crisis. In recent decades the temperature of Lake Erie has gotten warmer; less ice on the lake means that there is more moisture in the air than there used to be, creating more and bigger snowstorms.
Ice is in trouble all over the world. Glaciers from Nepal to Switzerland to Patagonia are receding, including one in Alaska that has lost more than 10 miles in the past 40 years. Last year a piece of the Antarctic ice cap bigger than the state of Rhode Island broke off and fell into the ocean, where it will melt and contribute to global sea-level rise.
Last Christmas my younger son, who is now 28, gave me Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a dystopian novel about climate disaster. It begins with a heat wave in India. The air conditioning systems stop working, unable to handle the demand. People flee to immerse themselves in a lake, trying to stay cool, but the heat is too much for them and they die.
When my son was a child, we both loved the ritual of reading “Something Is Going to Happen.” The story beautifully evoked what seemed then to be an unchanging pattern of seasonal change. But now, subtly yet ominously and unmistakably, our seasons are becoming more unpredictable. The summers are changing. The winters are changing. The something that was going to happen is already happening.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.