An exploration in grief, suicide, spiritualism, and Inuit culture, Winter of the Wolf follows Bean, an empathic and spiritually evolved fifteen-year-old, who is determined to unravel the mystery of her brother Sam’s death. Though all evidence points to a suicide, her heart and intuition compel her to dig deeper. With help from her friend Julie, they retrace Sam’s steps, delve into his Inuit beliefs, and reconnect with their spiritual beliefs to uncover clues beyond material understanding.
Both tragic and heartwarming, this twisting novel draws you into Bean’s world as she struggles with grief, navigates high school dramas, and learns to open her heart in order to see the true nature of the people around her. Winter of the Wolf is about seeking the truth–no matter how painful–in order to see the full picture.
In this novel, environmentalist and award-winning author, Martha Handler, brings together two important pieces of her life–the death of her best friend’s son and her work as president of the Wolf Conservation Center–to tell an empathetic and powerful story with undeniable messages.
My first thought is that I might be dead. I’m cold and stiff and I feel disoriented. If I’m not dead, then why am I lying on my back—something I never do—and why are the covers pulled over my head? I begin moving the fingers on my right hand slowly back and forth across the sheet, which feels somewhat reassuring. I slide my hand up along my body, brushing past my face before reaching out from beneath the covers. The frigid air startles me. I feel the top of my head and discover that my hair is partially frozen. Very odd.
Suddenly I hear voices in the distance. Gathering strength, I throw off the covers and force myself to sit up. Though every bone in my body aches as if I’ve been beaten, I exhale a huge sigh of relief. This isn’t a morgue; it’s my bedroom. It’s freezing because I stupidly left my window open, which explains why I’m hearing these annoying voices. I slide over on my bed and reach to shut the window, and as I do, I notice that the water in the glass on my bedside table is frozen solid. Have I totally lost my mind? Why would I have left my window open in mid-November in northern Minnesota? Then I notice the blue hospital papers lying underneath the water glass and, in an instant, every horrific second of the previous night flashes through my mind: I’m likely sore because of how violently I was thrown around during our accident, and I opened my window because I thought I might be having a panic attack and hoped the cold air might snap me out of it. I was sweating, shaking intensely, and my heart was pounding like crazy. I felt lonely and scared. There was no one to help me. Mom was in shock, Dad was trying to console her, my two oldest brothers, Adam and Chase, would be totally useless, and my soul mate and favorite brother, Sam, was gone. As in dead gone.
The voices outside get louder, disrupting my thoughts. They seem somehow unnatural. How can life possibly go on without Sam in it? I push aside the curtains to see who’s there. Down on the frozen lake, I see Billy Bishop, Mike Clayton, and Richie Branson, all junior varsity hockey stars, skating around something on the ice. I imagine that an animal has become frozen in the lake’s surface. When the boys stop skating and begin poking whatever it is with their hockey sticks, I suddenly feel inexplicably outraged and oddly protective. Without thinking, I jump out of bed, run to the mudroom, slip into my winter boots, throw on my long down coat over my moose-print flannel pj’s, put on a hat and mittens, and run out the door, down our backyard, and onto the ice, while screaming like a lunatic, “Stop! Don’t touch it! Get away! Leave it alone!”
Their heads jerk up simultaneously, and they give me odd looks. They quickly skate away, though Richie swivels around to stare back at me for a second. It feels like an eternity. He’s so incredibly hot with his curly auburn hair and piercing green eyes that normally I would have wanted to melt into the ice. I, and probably every freshman girl at my school, have a mad crush on him, but he must now think I’ve lost my mind. Or maybe he’s already heard about Sam, as news travels fast in our small town, and he’ll cut me some slack. I guess in the bigger scheme of things a cute boy no longer matters.
When I finally look down at the ice to see what it was they were poking, I find a beautiful young doe, which from her size I’m guessing is a yearling, lying in the area we all refer to as the black hole, the one spot in our neighborhood lake that always freezes last due, we suppose, to an underground spring. This doe looks strangely ethereal, peaceful even, as if she’s not deceased but simply resting on the ice. This is odd because the other animals I’ve seen frozen in our lake—and there’ve been many over the years—have had horribly panicked looks on their faces and their limbs were contorted into unnatural positions from their struggle not to succumb to drowning. Her left cheek, eye, ear, muzzle, and a small part of her neck lies exposed while the rest is frozen beneath the lake’s surface. Her whiskers are especially cute. Each individual hair is coated in ice, which reminds me of a porcupine I made in kindergarten by sticking toothpicks into a potato.
I remember this art project for what it taught me: even a plain brown potato could develop its own character with the simple addition of a few well-placed toothpicks. This was important for me to understand because I was, at the time, experiencing major separation issues from Sam. Though he was two years older, we’d always been nearly inseparable. When we weren’t together, I didn’t feel quite whole. I wasn’t sure if there was a me without him. The two years when he attended school and I didn’t were excruciatingly difficult, at least for me. I’d been counting down the days until I could attend kindergarten. But what I hadn’t fully grasped was that while we’d be at the same school, I wouldn’t necessarily see him. Though his classroom was only five doors down from mine, there might as well have been an ocean between us. My teacher refused to let me visit him and we didn’t even share the same lunch break or recess period.
Sam wasn’t like other boys his age. He wasn’t into violent video games or any electronics, for that matter. He didn’t have any social media accounts. He hated guns and hunting. He’d sooner nurse an injured squirrel back to health than shoot it with a BB gun. He didn’t particularly like watching or playing sports. He wouldn’t cut his hair or wear nice clothes. What he did enjoy was being out in nature, and so did I. We spent as much time as we could outdoors, and we didn’t care if it was below zero or if the sky was loaded with biting black flies.
But that fall, when he started second grade and I started kindergarten, everything seemed to change. His class watched the movie Nanook of the North, and he became inexplicably mesmerized by the Inuits, an indigenous Arctic people. He’d always been drawn to Native Americans, but his interest in and admiration for the Inuit was even deeper. I think he’d probably been an Inuit in another life. That’s the only explanation I have for his immediate and intimate connection with them.
The Inuit are people who live with nature, not separate from it. They hunt to survive but never for sport.They have respect for all souls and don’t think of animals as being lower than us or soul-less, and that was something Sam could relate to. From the time he was young, kids in our neighborhood called him “Indian boy” and “freak.” I felt terrible when he got picked on, but I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to stop it. Sam never seemed particularly bothered by their taunts. He was courageous and steadfast in his beliefs, even when it cost him popularity votes.
Around the time he became interested in the Inuit, he met Skip, and started spending most of his time either with his new best friend, or—now that he was beginning to read—with his head buried in a book about the Inuit. I felt abandoned. Maybe fractured is a better word. I guess I hadn’t quite grasped that Sam and I were two individual souls. Looking at the doe’s ice-coated whiskers, I struggle to remind myself of this lesson I learned so long ago.
I stare into the doe’s big brown eyes, wondering what it is about her that has me feeling so bewitched. Then I notice paw prints circling her. They’re embedded in the ice and much too large to be from a dog. Maybe a wolf made them. I follow the prints and note that they come from and trace back to the Enchanted Forest Island, which is located about a quarter mile from our backyard. On the island’s shoreline, something black hastily retreats into the woods. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but I believe it is a wolf or possibly a very large dog, though it doesn’t resemble any dog in our neighborhood. Very strange. Wolves don’t usually appear in broad daylight, and it’s highly unusual for one to turn down a free meal; but it may have been scared off by the skaters.
Sam’s big black-and-tan rescue hound, Dawg, comes bounding out of her dog door, running straight toward me. Instinctively, I move in front of the doe to block her. Dawg stops at my feet, sits, and looks up at me with eyes full of sadness and confusion. I take off my mittens and pet the top of her head and scratch behind her ears. Poor girl must be so confused. Does she understand that Sam’s gone and not ever coming back? No, she couldn’t possibly, because I can’t believe it. I scratch her one last time, then bend down to kiss the top of her head before putting my mittens back on. She looks up at me and walks daintily around me to get closer to the doe. I’m about to chase her away, but I hesitate because I notice that rather than trying to eat it, as she’s apt to do, she’s actually licking its face. She honestly seems as bewitched with her as I am.
Wait! Could this possibly be the deer we collided with last night? As it lay prone in the street in front of our car, we’d all assumed the deer was dead; its glassy eyes were vacant, it was bleeding out from a belly wound, and it was morbidly still. But maybe we were wrong, and the deer had survived. That would explain why Dad couldn’t find any trace of her when he inspected the damage to his car. It would also explain Dawg’s strange behavior. If this is that same deer, then she’d have picked up Sam’s scent because he’d draped himself over its body.
“Away!” I command and point toward the shore. Dawg lifts her head, then lowers it and slinks away. When she reaches the shore she dutifully sits down and stares back at me. Sam trained her very well. Not wanting to waste time, I quickly begin collecting the biggest rocks I can find along the shore and carefully place them in a large circle around the doe. Then I run up to our fishing shed and grab some leftover two-by-fours that are lying under a tarp and place them on top of the rocks to create a border. I don’t yet know why this doe is important, but in the meantime, I don’t want a wolf, Dawg, or anyone else disturbing her. I know this simple structure won’t be much of a deterrent, but I figure it’s better than nothing.
By the time it’s complete, I’m freezing my ass off. My chest is starting to burn, and I’m quickly losing circulation in my hands and feet. Before I go, I gingerly step inside the barrier, kneel beside the doe, and gently touch her cheek. She’s obviously dead, but she looks so alive that her cold, hardened face surprises me. I can’t help but wonder if this is how Sam’s body feels, if he is at this very minute lying naked on a cold metal exam table with a white sheet draped over his body in a cramped refrigerated drawer in the hospital morgue. It’s one thing to see such a thing in horror movies and on medical shows, yet quite another to imagine this fate for your beloved brother.
Far in the distance, I hear a lone wolf howling. I’m confused and so is Dawg. I watch her stare in the direction of the howl, tilting her head nearly horizontally, first one way and then the other. Then she begins to howl. She’s part hound dog so this isn’t unusual, but there’s something distinctly different about the pitch she’s using. It’s more sorrowful than normal. I guess we’re both a bit weirded out that we’re hearing a wolf at this time of day. Normally, because they’re crepuscular, we only hear them between dusk and dawn. Weirder still, there’s only one—a long, mournful howl from a lone wolf. I’m guessing it got separated from its pack during last night’s storm and is desperate to rejoin them. Wolves were one of Sam’s main totem animals, and hearing this howl suddenly reminds me of something he told me about how he wanted to be buried. I need to tell my parents before it’s too late.
Reprinted from Winter of the Wolf. Copyright © 2020 by Martha Hunt Handler
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Author bio: Martha Hunt Handler grew up in northern Illinois dreaming about wolves and has always understood that her role in this lifetime is to tell stories and be a voice for nature. She has been an environmental consultant, a magazine columnist, an actress, and a polar explorer, among other occupations. She has also driven across the country in an 18-wheeler and been a grand-prize winner of The Newlywed Game.
Soon after she and her family relocated from Los Angeles to South Salem, New York, she began to hear wolves in her backyard. This was the start of her twenty-plus-year career as an advocate for wolves at the Wolf Conservation Center, where she currently serves as Board President. When not up near the wolves and her rescue pups, she can be found in New York City with her husband and four adult children.
This is her first novel but definitely not her last.