As an author, every article on how to catch an agent’s interest says the number one, most important thing I can do is grab their attention and hold it from the first ten pages. The first page, if that’s possible. Until I read Winterset Hollow, I don’t think I’d seen an author do that more than a handful of times, yet Jonathan Durham succeeds within the first paragraph. To be perfectly honest, he manages this trick before the story even begins with his deft use of verse from the fictional children’s book of the same name.
Without giving away too much, this is a complex tale with many layers of meaning. Its veneer is a thin layer of “be careful what you wish for” but beneath that, it’s got a darker heart beating to the rhythm of vengeance by any means necessary. Other themes abound, but, for me, the central was one man’s quest for who he was as a person, and how much was a gift from his ancestors.
Winterset Hollow, the children’s book written by Edward Addington, is a story in verse of a diverse group of animals living together in harmony within the titular hollow. When Runnington Rabbit hops the hedge to satisfy his curiosity, he sets in motion a series of events that must end in death. While the depth of story in the fictional book reminds me of Watership Down, the verse makes the somber tale palatable in a way only good verse can. I’d love to see Durham complete that work and publish it separately; his poetry is really that good.
Eamon, Mark, and Caroline in the “real” world, each resemble one of the four bloodthirsty fictional characters that leapt from the pages of their favorite book bent on bloody murder, and it is only the bond of the three that offers them any chance of surviving Barley Day. But more than that, Eamon must lean on the teachings of an unbalanced father who abandoned him in the forest, coming to terms with what the man did to prepare him for such a day as this.
Not every character gets their moment in the sun the way Eamon does, yet we learn so much of the antagonists—Runny, Finn, Bing, and Flack—and their motivations, it’s difficult to hate them as they hunt and kill those who came to honor them. It’s this depth of character that makes Winterset Hollow so wonderful a read; every motivation for good or evil is plausible and understandable.
There’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming until I was over three quarters of the way through the novel, and that revelation is one final push for Eamon and his last act. The only issue I have with the writing are the number of miraculous escapes Eamon has from what even he sees as certain death, each time musing on its meaning in relation to his life. Once is enough. More than that is overkill. Aside from this one niggle, though, the novel is brilliant and deeply affective. This is one that will stay with you for days or weeks after you turn the last page.