The bond between a mother and her child is a mysterious thing. As adoptive families know, more than biology links us, infiltrating our hearts, our thoughts, and even our perception of the world around us. That connection is not always easy, especially as the child moves into adolescence. But for one mother, one special day with her beloved teenage daughter will threaten to unravel everything in this nightmare-inducing domestic mystery by poet and novelist Laura Kasischke.
“Something had followed them home from Russia.” That’s the thought that Holly Judge wakes up with, possibly from a dream. It’s Christmas morning. Her husband has already taken off to pick up his parents at the airport, and Holly has a holiday feast to prepare before these and other guests arrive. To complicate matters further, it’s snowing out — hard — and Holly’s daughter, 15-year-old Tatiana, is not being helpful. In fact, their beautiful daughter, whom they adopted in Russia 13 years before, is still in bed.
Holly herself has overslept, which contributes to her problems. As the day progresses, Tatiana appears to resent her mother for this — possibly because it means they must delay opening their presents to get ready for company. There’s a roast to prepare, and a vegan salad for a friend’s son. The table must be set, calling for the glassware Holly inherited from her mother. Only a year earlier, Holly recalls, Tatiana would have been happy to help her. This holiday, however, all the teenager does is try on one dress after another, ask pointless questions, and sulk, then disappear back into her room.
It’s enough to test any mother’s patience, and Holly is soon at her wit’s end. She wanted to be a parent, she reminds herself. She and her husband had to aggressively pursue parenthood, following several prophylactic surgeries to protect her from the cancers that killed her own mother and sisters. As the day lumbers ahead, Holly remembers her own early losses, trying to focus on the choices she made that brought her to this place. But every time Holly looks outside, she sees the snow, reminding her of Siberia and Pokrovka Orphanage #2, where she and her husband first fell in love with their daughter, and of the strange foreboding that has haunted her since her day began.
As told by Holly, the narrative is a jumble of memory and present-day concerns: the stream-of-consciousness of a busy mother expecting a house full of guests. Even the strange anxiety, the aftermath of a bad dream, seems to fit into Holly’s headlong internal narrative: What mother of a teenager doesn’t wonder if something strange, or even evil, has infiltrated her child? But this is not a normal day, and the dread, like the snow, accumulates, building to a conclusion that in retrospect will seem terribly, tragically clear.
Kasischke’s background as a poet is clear in her use of language, particularly the repetition of certain phrases and images. The suspense and horror in “Mind of Winter” is largely created by these rhythms, and by her choices of what to leave out as much as to state. In fact, Holly, busy and distracted, prefers not to remember certain traumatic events, and Kasischke lets us know of them through hints and sentence fragments that also reveal the narrator’s desperate denial. “The cat, crawling off. Her back legs, her tail,” for example, suggests not only the accident that we will learn killed the family pet but also the narrator’s revulsion at the memory. “And before that, the hen, their favorite.” By the end of “Mind of Winter” even a simple word, a girl’s name, will be enough to make skin crawl.
Although this is not a bloody book, it is not for the squeamish either. Kasischke knows that what lurks hidden in the shadows is scarier than any monster we can see. She also knows that, scared as we may be, we can’t resist a peek.