Book Review: Winterset Hollow

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Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham

At some point, we’ve all fallen in love with a story involving talking animals. Either The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, or even Alice in Wonderland has impacted our lives with its variety of talking animals. Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham continues the fine tradition of memorable tales of talking animals, with a twist.

In Winterset Hollow, three friends travel to an isolated island which was once the home of a children’s book author. The fictional book was written by the reclusive author about talking animals in a mythical land and written as an epic poem. It’s the story of an idyllic peace being broken, and the characters being forced to change in ways they never expected. Once there, the three friends find that the storybook is far more real and far more dangerous than they could have possibly imagined.

The three friends, Eamon, Mark and Caroline, are a group similar to friend groups I’ve had over the years. Eamon is a young man whose background is filled with borderline abuse and neglect from his father, who one day disappears. Young Eamon is raised as an orphan at that point, which informs a lot of his character motivation. At one point, he receives a copy of Winterset Hollow from a mysterious sender while in foster care. He feels like an outsider and his social skills are limited by his background. As the story progresses, we get hints that Eamon’s family history is far more relevant than anyone realizes.

I’m going to stop here to note that this is one of my favorite aspects of Durham’s writing. The slow unfolding of events and information about Eamon helps keep the suspense. As much as Addington Island is mysterious, Eamon is equally so and it’s a gift to get to know him through the unfolding story.

Eamon’s friend, Mark, is athletic and less intellectual than his companions. At least that’s how he portrays himself. He apparently hasn’t read Winterset Hollow, as his friends have done many times. Most of the time, he plays at being a mope as a foil to Mark and Caroline’s more developed intellectualism. Overall, he’s very protective of Eamon, as a big brother might be, and provides Eamon with a close social connection.

Caroline is Mark’s girlfriend and Eamon’s supportive friend. She’s kind of a mama bear to Eamon. She has a turbulent history with her own family, which offers common ground for Eamon. She owns multiple copies of Winterset Hollow, as a proper bibliophile does, but she carries her mother’s copy with her on the trip to Addington Island, where the story was written.

It’s on the island where the story turns fantastic. Here, we meet the last residents of Addington Island, who maintain the last of what was once a grand estate. It’s here that we meet the erudite and proper Runnymede Rabbit, the gourmand Flackwell Frog, the bitter and clever Phineas Fox, as well as the massive Binghamton Bear.

A quick synopsis of these characters is appropriate, because they are integral to the story.

Runnymede Rabbit is more or less the seneschal of the property, ensuring that his guests are appropriately cared for. Flackwell is the chef and his culinary skill is renowned in the fictional tale that the human companions adore; he shows the three friends that it was, in fact, based on truth. Phineas, the fox, is bitter and vengeful. He keeps a particular breed of “hound,” with which he hunts. And Bing Bear is nearly Finn’s equal in his anger and spite. Of the four, he’s the one who doesn’t speak.

The animal characters are from The Hollow, where all the animals are highly intelligent and can learn to speak the human language. Every year, they have a traditional feast celebrating Barley Day. It is on the annual Barley Day that guests are allowed access to the island and estate, which is why Eamon, Mark, and Caroline go to Addington Island. As the Durham’s tale progresses, we learn that the Barley Day feast and celebrations being hosted on the island are a façade for a more sinister reason. And that the source for this particular annual fete is equally as dark.

Durham excels at taking what is generally a genre of whimsy, with talking animals, and giving it new breath.

It took me far too long to get around to reading this book. And it took me far too long to finish it. I left town for a new job and forgot it, half finished, on my coffee table. When I did revisit the book, I started from the beginning to experience the full wonder and thrill of the story. And then this review sat for far too long on a cloud server, waiting for me to finish it.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s read The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the whimsy and fantasy is touched with a bit of darkness. Much of the first half of the book feels like an homage to those childhood stories. And even though the story turns into a nightmare for Eamon and his friends, I never lost empathy for Runny and his companions in their search for resolution to their story.

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