Settings are often the secret heart of a book, descriptions that tug at a reader’s resistance to enter into the fictional world, and Alison’s Stine’s debut novel Road Out of Winter is a book whose setting compels the reader to keep reading—both for the devastation of the current state of affairs, and for the mournfully beautiful loss.
Rather than the warming on our radar for decades, or the deadly fear of a nuclear holocaust, or even the coronavirus debacle pickling our planet, Stine’s is a world that has painted Appalachia, an already impoverished farming community, white with snow—all year, for the second year in a row.
From the little I know about dystopias—thanks to 1984 and Brave New World and the occasional Kurt Vonnegut book—and the less I know about thrillers—thanks to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—I’d say Stine’s Road fits both labels, in addition to the obvious category of feminist fiction.
This Road is a feminist talk back to McCarthy, if there ever was one, although I don’t remember any feeling of hope from McCarthy. This novel is richly imagined, deeply moving and unthinkably offers hope in a world that uncannily resembles ours currently in the thick of COVID-19.
It’s a gloriously well-written book, not the least because Stine is an award winning poet, in addition to being an award winning journalist, and although this is considered a debut of sorts, she’s published two additional books of fiction, albeit registered as YA.
A young woman from a greatly broken home meets a greatly broken world, gathering up those who are also broken. It’s a tale that looks to establish sanity as something akin to empathy, to redefine common ground as something akin to compassion, and to honor the symbolic growers among us—the women.
It’s a journey story, a migration, an exodus—and this group of outsiders doesn’t get very far before patriarchal worlds stop them, fool with them, but in Stine’s hands, the women have the agency—because they take it. Because they have the strength and the intelligence to govern—to take care, to fiercely confront those who mean to hurt or defile them.
An unlikely backstory for someone just four years out of high school, with many dreams, among which is to attend college. “But that was what people in other places did, not here,” Stine writes, Wylodine thinks. “Appalachian Ohio, the heart of nothing at all.”
Wil is a grower—and what she grows is marijuana. She’s learned the trade from her “mama” and her mama’s boyfriend, Lobo. We are meant to see her as a product of drug users and drunks, with something like a super power—her reputation precedes her in those she meets.
As we in a time of COVID-19 know well, both cannabis and the precious sustenance provided by earth, hold their ground.
And how poignant that our narrator, at the transformative age of 22, or thereabouts, is among those most vulnerable to the crushing of dreams brought on by the mysterious and deadly and lingering non-negotiable.
Although not the recipient of a mother’s nurturing, Wil nurtures others, people as well as her beloved plants. We are meant to know that men find her physically attractive, that she has been subject to abusers, that she has been taught well how to overpower a man—and when she can’t, she has learned to run.
We are also meant to know that she loves a certain Lisbeth, that she dreams of a life with her, that that dream is unlikely to be reciprocated, for Lisbeth’s attachment to “The Church,” a fundamentalist-like group that invited Wil to join them in their migration out.
“We can protect you,” her beloved Lisbeth says.
“Protect me from what? Do you know something? What’s causing this?”
Lisbeth paused. “God.”
Carefully, artfully crafted, this is also a cleverly plotted book, such that every prop—from the weapons to the grow lights—proves itself there for a good reason. Stine masterfully takes us on this doomed journey across the ruined paradise of Appalachia with its plundered, hollowed-out foothills, its acid-laced streams, its injection wells left by frackers. Even the names of Stine’s characters entrance the reader as a window into them: My favorite is Pumpkin King.
And this is a fast-moving book—it almost demands to be taken in in one sitting; the suspense is not to be underestimated. Stine does not let you forget the chill for a moment—and yet this is a novel that takes the Appalachian culture and makes it sing.
Yes, it’s a novel that asks to be considered as one of those harbingers about climate change, but it’s more than an idea in Stine’s hands. We see and feel and smell the lost and suffering world of those hollers and ridges and foothills that really do constitute one of the most impoverished locales of this country. This setting is where much of Stine’s journalism takes place. It is close to her heart, and it will be close to the reader’s, as well.
Road out of Winter properly begins in medias res. Wil’s mama and Lobo have left town for the West coast and left her in charge of their farm and the weed that grows there—and supplies almost everyone she knows and will meet on her own migration, which begins in earnest when she receives a postcard from her mama asking in a coded manner for help.
Wil and an increasing number of passengers, along with Wil’s over-stuffed truck pulling the tiny house she, for all intents and purposes, raised herself in, head out to California. This is the unstoppable road out, and there are those who would stop her, one man in particular, who becomes the face and metaphor for what is causing the human catastrophes we, too, are experiencing, a kind of predation.
Towards the end, Wil accuses this man, Jake, a creator of a skate park they inadvertently run into—among several unusual groupings of people who have banded together, renegades off the unworkable grid.
“You are a predator,” Wil says.
But it doesn’t end there.
Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine was released September 1.