Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 2 – “Lake of the Coheeries”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 2 – “Lake of the Coheeries”)

We jump back into the narrative, eighty or so years after Peter Lake and Athansor jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and into the cloud wall.  We’re not going to see them again for a while, but we have some new characters to meet.

And we begin with Virginia Gamely, a lifelong resident of Lake of the Coheeries.  We open with a beautiful description of the Hudson Valley leading up to the town, and the brutal – yet wonderful – winter that is currently gripping it.  And we come to the house of Mrs. Gamely, an elderly widow who lives there with her daughter Virginia, a lovely woman somewhere in her thirties, and her infant son Martin.

Mrs. Gamely is illiterate, yet has a vocabulary of several hundred thousand words, and some unique views of the world (or, perhaps not so unique among the residents of her town).  Helprin has a lot of fun with language in this chapter with Mrs. Gamely and her linguistic genius, which we’ll see later that Virginia has inherited, too.

At this moment, though, there are more important matters: the winter is worse than any in memory, and there’s not enough food for Mrs. Gamely, Virginia and the baby to make it through to the spring.  One night, Virginia has an extraordinary dream – something that has happened to her before.  She sees a great city, a city that is a living thing, a city that becomes her lover.  When she awakens, she knows that she dreamed the truth: her future is in that city (Manhattan, naturally):

She had always known that her future was in her, waiting to be shaken out

She explains to her mother that, if she and the baby go now, there’ll be enough food to last through the winter, no matter how bad it gets.  Mrs. Gamely finally agrees, once Virginia recounts the dream.  And she sends Virginia off with one last bit of wisdom:

“Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead.  Rise, Virginia.  Rise and see the whole world.”  Virginia did not know exactly what her mother had meant.

But I think we do.  If anything, though, Mrs. Gamely has it backwards.  It’s not shattering time, but putting past, present and future back together – or at least being able to see them for the one seamless whole that they are.  And as for bringing back the dead, we’ll get to that in part 4 of the book.

Virginia makes her way down the Hudson, via sleigh to an iceboat dock.  The iceboat isn’t running, however, so she stops at an inn.  The innkeeper offers her a room for the night, and then she’ll have to skate down to the dock to reach another dock where a cutter will be waiting, bound for the city.  Virginia dreams of skating, and lives exactly the journey she dreamed of the next day.

The journey is blocked by an impassable wall of snow that piled up overnight, but Virginia climbs up and over.  The innkeeper is horrified; it’s a nearly sheer wall.  But Virginia, having dreamed of this already, knows what’s to happen.  Near the top, she almost loses her nerve and begins to lose her grip, but she forces herself to imagine her triumph, and that vision carries her over.  At the very top is the bottom of the cloud wall, which dances her across and deposits her on the other side:

all because of the baby on her back, for whom allowances had to be made.

In part 1, remember that Peter Lake had the experience of sometimes negotiating with the cloud wall, so this is just par for the course.

Virginia and Martin cross over (and I think there may be more going on that is plainly stated – I have some questions about time that I’ll get to at the end of this post) and make it to their boat.  It’s stuck on ice, and the weight of little Martin (the last passenger to be brought aboard) cracks the ice and the boat is suddenly in open water.  As they sail down the Hudson, Virginia begins to think about the city she’s headed for:

the city would be cold, completely of itself, unconscious, that its every move would be transcendent, and that each of its hundred million flashing scenes would strike a moral lesson.

When she first catches sight of New York City:

she knew she was meant to be there.  It did not draw people to it the way it did for nothing.  It was God’s crucible, and she was on her way into it.

She and Martin wander the streets of Manhattan in the frigid cold before ending up in Grand Central Station, and looking into the window of the Oyster Bar, she sees a familiar face: Jessica Penn.  Yes, one of those Penns – daughter of Harry Penn, whom we last knew as a teenaged boy.  He’s now elderly, and has long since taken his father’s post as publisher of the New York Sun.

Virginia knows Jessica from childhood; the Penns spent summers at their home in the Lake of the Coheeries.  Jessica beckons Virginia in, and introduces her to the executive staff of the Sun.  The two we’ll get to know best are the editor in chief, Praeger de Pinto (he’s also Jessica’s fiance) and Marko Chestnut, the paper’s artist (I mentioned him as one possible candidate for the creator of the painting in the Penn basement in part 1):

One could, in a few lines, show the soul.  One could, if one had the courage.

Virginia sees that Marko does have that courage, in spades.

Virginia is drawn into conversation, and impresses the collected staff of the Sun with her vocabulary and insight.  Praeger invites her to visit the paper the next day for what Jessica informs her is more or less a job interview.  That night, she dreams about it, recounting in precise detail every step and every word – and, as has happened twice already in this chapter, it plays out exactly as she dreams (with one exception).

Praeger, after asking ehr to write about her impressions of the city, offers her a job on the spot.  She accepts, but she wants to start from the bottom:

“I’ve imagined great victories, and I’ve imagined great races.  The races are better.”

The one exception between her dream and the reality is a stop to buy Martin a cookie in Chinatown, which is sold to her by:

a fat Caucasian boy with slit eyes and a Chinese hat.  He seemed very strange.

No question but that he is Mr. Cecil Wooley.  It’s interesting that he should greet a new arrival from Lake of the Coheeries, a friend of the Penn family, and someone who will, as the story progresses, get caught up in the story of Peter Lake.

One more thing about this chapter – the question of time.  This chapter, although it’s not stated explicitly, takes place in 1994 (at least, the New York City action does).  I’m skipping ahead to say this, because in the next chapter, we learn that another year has passed, and the date is given as September of 1995.  But it’s hard to reconcile this.  Mrs. Gamely is an elderly woman.  We’ll learn in the next chapter that she was only a few years old when Beverly Penn died, back in 1916.  That would make her 85 years old here.  We also know that Virginia is 35 or so, which means that Mrs. Gamely had her when she was 50 (not impossible, but certainly eyebrow-raising).  In a much later chapter, Mrs. Gamely remembers taking a young Virginia (probably 10 years old or so) to greet her father as she returns after “the war” ended, on a troopship, only to be met by his commander, Harry Penn, who informs them that Mr. Gamely died in the war.  If Virginia were born around 1960, that places her father’s death at 1970.  But that doesn’t jibe with history as we know it.

I think the answer is something else – time, in Lake of the Coheeries, is not a constant.  The town is only loosely and inconsistently connected with the rest of the world (Virginia tells the Sun staffers that no one can get to it unless they are “a resident” – or, as we’ll see in the next chapter, by accident).

I don’t know exactly how to reconcile the times yet, but keep it in mind as we read on, and maybe it will become more clear.

Next up, we’ll meet our second new character, Hardesty Marratta…

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4 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 2 – “Lake of the Coheeries”)”

  1. Did the posting of this get delayed somehow? I see the date listed is the 18th but I’m positive I checked for this on the 22nd or later only to see it show up with an earlier date. Now I’m *really* behind on the next chapter which is really really long; not that it matters because I can read it at any pace and pick up on your synopsis at any time thanks to the wonders of the internet.

    Anyway I enjoyed this chapter a great deal, particularly how the new characters were introduced with their links to past ones.

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