Like the pitiful bird trapped in barbed wire in the opening page, so too are the characters in Craig Larsen’s The Second Winter inextricably bound by forces they do not understand and over which they have no control. It is a cold and brutal tale — inspired by real people and events — that captures the desperation and urgency of survival in 1942 Europe, as well as the incredibly dangerous divide between the haves and have-nots. It crosses time and space to follow a woman who briefly reunites with family in a recently divided Berlin in order to take possession of only half-understood family secrets.
The story begins with Polina, a beautiful young half-Jewish girl from Krakow who finds her world utterly changed one dark moment. Without sanctuary or safety even among what family remains to her, she attempts to flee to a better life but ends up falling right into the wolves’ den. From that point she ceases to be a person, really. She ceases even to have an identity beyond what is given to her by the men who control her. Like so many millions she is lost to history, and like so many others all that remains is her name on the back of a photograph.
Larsen also found inspiration in Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, and here too there is a piece of jewelry that, like Polina, passes from hand to hand without care for its past or its future. Those it enthralls, who want to possess it and jealously guard it, find nothing they expect from it.
While Polina is a catalyst within the story, much of it revolves around Frederik, a once-wealthy son of an aristocratic family who, due to his boorish, sometimes psychopathic tendencies, has been rejected by his family. He works as a farmhand to another wealthy family, along with his son, Oskar, and daughter, Amalia. To make ends meet, Frederik works with the Danish underground smuggling Jews and other “undesirables” out of Denmark.
This is by no means an altruistic decision; he’s in it for the money and has very little regard for the lives he’s moving around. One cold night he discovers among one family’s possessions a veritable treasure trove of jewelry, including the aforementioned necklace and decides to relieve them of their precious cargo. The theft sets off a sequence of events that make him question everything in his life he has ever valued and everyone he has ever abused and discarded.
Larsen’s language isn’t complicated, but the story is full of fleshed-out, emotionally complex characters and scenes that evoke a range of emotions. He excels at capturing tone and building tension; once you’re into the main plot it’s hard to put the book down. You can practically see the dirt from the sty on Frederik’s clothes, feel the cold driving nails into Oskar’s hands, feel the hot anguish Amalia suffers at the hands of the family’s wealthy landlady as well as in her own home. It’s a time that’s so emotionally charged, but this perspective is different from so many that we see.
It certainly isn’t light reading, but it is worthwhile reading. Sometimes readers keep turning pages to escape into a different world. This is the kind of read that leads you into a place of empathy. This isn’t to say that every unlikeable character has a redeeming feature, but those who may seem beyond understanding and undeserving of compassion are the ones who, as can happen in real life, be the ones most in need of it.
The non-chronological order may confuse at first, but it all works itself out once a few critical puzzle pieces slip into place. The only place it falls short is that it ends with questions unanswered and fates unknown. But then, these wouldn’t be the only lives to end that way that winter.
The Second Winter