Tina May Hall has created a work of storytelling art in The Snow Collectors by weaving the genres of gothic mystery/ romance, the atmosphere of a lyrical poem, and a warning of apocalyptic environmental collapse.
The first chapter is divided into chunks that describe Henna’s, the main character’s, background. These sections move abruptly between her present thoughts, her past, and back again to her reaction at finding a dead body on her property. Hall pushes and pulls the readers, daring them to follow along. This lyrical and poetic movement mirrors Henna’s mind set of grief. Her father, mother, and twin sister drowned in a boating accident, and their bodies were never found. We meet Henna as she tries to exist within her closureless grief. The paragraphs alternate between her memories and her present. The first line of the book, and each paragraph describing Henna’s present state of mind begins with some form of “I found a body in my woods.” I kept rereading this first line: “I FOUND THE DEAD WOMAN at the edge of my woods on the last day of January.” A line which at first reminded me of the first five minutes of any solid mystery, but later the meaning expanded to serve as an anchor for Henna’s grief.
The small capitalization of the words screams the intent and solid foundations of the novel—I FOUND THE DEAD WOMAN. Hall intentionally moves the readers by repeating “I found a body,” in between paragraphs about Henna’s grief over the loss of her family’s bodies, a family reminiscence, and description of winter. Henna bobs along on her waves of grief and by the end of the chapter she admits she’s changed: “I’m telling you, there’s liberation in misanthropy. I used to be the life of the party. I used to be a golden-skinned girl, with Claire beside me in skirts we made ourselves …” The loss of family left her without a foundational identity: “Now, I was the strange dark-haired woman in the coffee shop, the grocery store, the village library.” Henna is learning how to exist as someone else. Someone without family; someone who acknowledges the presence of a dead woman by demanding the truth.
But how does the mystery of a dead woman and environmental collapse mesh? All the elements of the gothic mystery/romance are in Hall’s story: the troubled single woman, a dead body, a dark mansion with secret rooms, a handsome sheriff, and even a ripped bodice. After enjoying the story, something kept nagging at me after I placed it back on my shelf. Like the crime drama that is solved before the hour is over, I knew there must be more to the story than the obvious. I reread passages I thought didn’t quite fit during my first reading. One early example is Muriel, a woman who “could not or chose not to speak.” She’s a woodland inhabitant who communicates through sign language, and is fluent in nature’s language. When Henna first meets her, she’s surprised to see Muriel’s bees because “[b]y the time Claire and I were born all the bees disappeared. The ones Muriel kept were genetic resurrections of an ancient Turkish strain.” Muriel worked at propagating a strain that thrived “in the cold and damp and fed on many things other than pollen.” At first this early detail seems to be nothing more than an interesting character in a quirky, but dark, village. Hall expertly stitches this thread into the narrative so quietly that I didn’t read it at first as an early warning of environmental collapse. The immediate danger that few are listening to. Also, Hall’s believable and strong writing in the character of Henna is another reason the genre meshing successfully works. She trusts her instincts, but is aware of what she needs to learn. She openly respects and accepts help from Muriel.
Hall adds another layer to the mystery in the chapters that tell the story of the lost Arctic Expedition of Sir John Franklin. They are told through the words of his second wife, Lady Jane Franklin. The retelling of the story becomes a study of why lies are perpetuated. It’s interesting to read how Hall educates the readers on the dangers of ignoring the truth by using these chapters to illuminate the effect science has on generations of humans. First, chapter titles are named for scientific phenomena, or types of equipment used in exploration, or physics. We learn about Lady Jane’s childhood, her courtship and marriage, Sir Franklin’s lost expedition, and how she survived him. Despite rumors, she chose to create a heroic lie about the fate of the expedition. Living with this choice served her immediate needs, but future generations of her family would face the deadly repercussions of her decision.
Like Lady Jane, Henna was faced with a choice. She could accept the flimsy explanations about the dead woman in the woods, because the “[d]ead woman was making disorder of the order [she] so carefully constructed.” And each time she gets close to the truth, she is ignored, or put in harm’s way. Henna is a believable character who doesn’t always make the correct choices, but she is compelled to find the truth. A woman who stood at the open door after her home was invaded and faced the cold air rushing at her.
Hall never tangled the threads in the multitude of storylines. Each character’s arc (historical, mysterious, romantic, or scientific) represented a choice and a consequence. She slowly allowed the human characters to step aside so I could discover what the true mystery at the heart of The Snow Collectors is; that is, how will we choose to continue living our numbered days on Earth?
The Snow Collectors, by Tina May Hall. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, February 2020. 224 pages. $16.95, paper.
Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept.