Snow stained black from city air is piled high on streets and sidewalks, leaving wide puddles at crosswalks as it melts. This has been quite a winter — twice the average total snowfall — and more is expected next week. Blizzards have blown through as regularly as express trains, and cities are running short of salt for the roads and highways.
On snow days I usually like to curl up with a wintery novel like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, or O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth. Something to remind me that even if the subway trains fall behind schedule, things could be a lot worse.
This year I found something new: S. D. Crockett’s After the Snow (2012), set in Wales in 2059 after a new Ice Age has changed the global balance of power and wealth. Willo, a skilled trapper even though only fifteen, lives in the Welsh mountains with his survivalist family. When they disappear, he sets out to find them, along the way meeting people who help or threaten him. Whom can he trust? For whom is he willing to risk his own life? And how much can he rely on the voice of the Dog in his head (he isn’t schizophrenic — this is one of his animist beliefs) to guide him to safety?
Willo’s narration reminds me of Riddley Walker, the eponymous hero of Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic tale. Willo is also trying to fathom why things are the way they are. Why, for instance, does his family live alone in the wilderness. It’s to get away from the horrors of the city, his dad explains.
It sound like London aint been too great even before the snow and the troubles come, but Dad say no it aint been that bad. Just all the bad things been waiting, kind of hiding under the ground like the grass wait under the snow for summer to come. Except they aint been good things like grass but bad things — all the angry things and hungry things, and my dad say the animal bit inside people’s heads.
Willo’s choices eventually bring him to a city, and he sees for himself what his father had escaped: shanty towns that are a mixture of Brazil’s favelas and any war-torn country’s refugee camps; gangs of children who terrorize the weak and elderly; thuggish police and soldiers; hunger, disease, cold, and fear — these are the new Riders who will bring about the end of the world as we know it.
Willo’s dad said his children were Beacons of Hope, and this phrase echoes through the book. Towers are everywhere (electric pylons marking a highway, broken windmills at a wind farm, apartment tower blocks in the city), yet all are dark. No hope-inspiring beacons there. Torches, candles, and flints provide a tenuous and weak light, but nothing one can rely on. At one point a girl he’s helping knocks the candle from Willo’s hand as they scramble through a cave. “Well, that aint too clever,” he tells her, but he has his flint and can relight the candle. Moments like that one made me believe Willo truly is a Beacon, despite the horrors he must face.