Winter’s Tale takes place in New York, but not in any New York you would immediately recognize instead, the turn of the century New York City of sepia-tinted dreams. (The old century, by the way, when the whole idea of a New World city was really just getting its legs under it.) We follow thief, orphan, hero Peter Lake through this city, in pursuit of the magical white horse that just appeared, rescued him from his enemies, and vanished. Did it really fly away?
Peter is chased through the city and through time by the Short Tail gang, a crew of villains that would look right at home in silent movie, only their purpose is deadly and their leader, Pearly Soames, only seems to be a joke. Peter tries a break-in at a grand estate, not knowing the daughter of the house, the radiant Beverly, is still at home. She rarely leaves, because she’s dying.
So I’ve told you the very beginning, but I haven’t mentioned Peter’s hideout in the starry ceiling of Grand Central Station, and I haven’t mentioned the old fashioned newspaper rivalry between The Sun and The Whale The Whale being owned by Craig Binky, the stupidest man in literature. And you’ll take horse drawn ice-sled trips across a frozen lansdscape to the hidden town of Lake of the Coheeries, where time stands still and the river never thaws. (It’s in upstate New York but don’t bother consulting a map.)
You’ll also need to find out about the children of the tenements, because in this glorious and imagined city, the beautiful and powerful are never far from the wicked and the poor.
You’ll meet all these people, plus the brave and lovely Virginia Gamely, Jesse Honey (the worst wilderness guide ever), and the mysterious Cecil Mature, a loyal friend and good cook. And above it all, over the river the bridge is rising, the rainbow bridge, a span of light arcing into the clouds and into the future. You’ll wonder whether you want to join the race to the future when the stories told here of the fragile past are so beautiful. But the bridge is inevitable, progress will leave some behind, and even in this magical place are death and tragedy. Towards the end a great fire rages through Manhattan and nearly destroys it. (This book was written in 1983, and these chapters take a new and unpleasant resonance. In fact, the whole end of the book feels different to me that it did when I first read it. We’re all traveling forward, whether we want to or not.)
Through it all is Peter Lake, who journeys from the past into an unimaginable future on his marvelous white horse, and his quest for a love that ‘stops time and brings back the dead.’
Winter’s Tale is by Mark Helprin.