Brace yourselves: Giller long-lister The Winter Family is a roaring ride through violence.
The fastest guns in the west? Check. Murderers for hire? Check. Psychopathic soldiers, vengeful slaves, and civil war atrocities? Check, check, check.
Then, of course, we have Augustus Winter himself: the man with the golden eyes and a heart as cold as a Minnesota snowstorm.
The novel is split into a set of stories following Winter and his outlaw band – the Winter Family, as they come to be known – over the course of forty years. They free slaves, slaughter villages, hold up trains, and sell their work to the highest bidder. Their path has little rhyme or reason; they follow the money and hope for the best. A few members of the band attempt to settle down and leave outlaw life behind, but it soon becomes clear that you can never, ever leave the Winter Family.
This book wasn’t really my jam – which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. Going into it, I had an inkling it might not be exactly up my alley, since I’m not really a fan of serial killers, or historical fiction, or family sagas that span multiple decades, so I obviously brought a fair few biases into my reading of this novel. I think I was hoping for a character-driven tale of the Wild West – something along the lines of Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers. I think given the style and setting of The Winter Family, and my own personal preferences, I liked it as much as I could have. I can’t fault it for failing blowing my socks off.
But even for a tale more action-driven than character-driven, the Winter outlaws seemed to lack depth. After a while they begin to blend together into indistinguishably sad, desperate characters. As Jackman puts it, “they looked like what they were: a bunch of middle-aged men who would soon be dead.”
My biggest beef with The Winter Family is that it’s not always possible to see the human behind the monstrous outlaw. After a childhood under the thumb of an abusive and religious father, it seems that Augustus Winter spends the rest of his life lashing out like a wounded animal. But that’s all there is to him; he remains impenetrable until the very end. With 30 pages left in the book, Jackman ends up literally spelling out Winter’s motivation:
“I looked at the world, and it was cruel, and I thought that God made it in his image and I thought if I was like Him then God would love me.”
I suppose it makes sense as a credo for an outlaw leader. On the other hand, if this is truly Winter’s driving force, I would have liked to see his violence and cruelty ramp up over the course of the novel. Instead, he starts out as terrifying – and as a result, doesn’t have much chance to grow from there.
So Does this one have the guts to take the Giller? It’s hard to say. But I can’t argue that Jackman knows how to spin a spine-chilling scene:
Shivers. Pure shivers.