A guest review by Leslie
A Report from Winter is a death-in-the-family story, a love story, and a meditation on the meaning of ”winter”–as a season and as a metaphor for family relationships.
It’s January 1998, and southern Maine is recovering from one of the worst ice storms in history. Into this unforgiving environment comes the author, flying home from Kansas City after a ten-year absence. His mother, Jennie, is dying of cancer. Though receiving excellent care in a nursing home, she has lost the ability to communicate. Needing support, Wayne makes an SOS call to Ralph, his longtime partner. Ralph boards a plane to Portland for his first exposure to a Maine winter, and to Wayne’s family as well, including a feisty aunt and an emotionally distant brother. The contrast between a nurturing gay relationship and dysfunctional family bonds is as sharp as the wind sweeping in from the sea.
Stubbornly unsentimental, A Report from Winter weaves childhood memories of winter with the harsh realities of living in a family where there’s not enough love to go around. The memoir is a tribute to hard-won relationships built on mutual trust and understanding, defying an uncaring world.
Wave suggested this book to me because she thought I might like the Maine setting—and she was right. The descriptions of Portland: our airport with its silly name (the Portland International Jetport, for God’s sake), streets, restaurants, the Old Port, Cedars Nursing Home, pulled me right in. I felt like I was looking at a photo album. But what kept me reading was the wonderful writing—evocative, humorous, touching when need be. Courtois knows how to tell a story in such a way that I as a reader became invested, which meant that I kept turning the pages, even when I should have been doing other stuff, like work. (NB: You may see this as theme in my reviews. When I get hooked on a book, I can’t put it down, and everything else around me suffers.)
The memoir opens with Wayne landing at the Jetport, navigating his way in his compact rental car through a snowstorm to the Pomegranate Inn, and preparing to, as he says, cope. Cope with his family: his dying mother, his distant brother, and his judgmental aunt. Wayne presents himself in such a way that he reminds me of David Sedaris: a gay man who is a mass of nerves and insecurities who, because of his loving and supportive partner, is able to get out of bed and function on a day-to-day basis. They both use humor to tell their stories, but Wayne’s is more subtle and gentle than Sedaris’. Similarly, in Sedaris’ essays, his family comes off as a bunch of eccentric, but lovable goofballs; in Wayne’s world, his family is just plain dysfunctional. It is clear that it has taken him a long time to work through many of these issues and he’s still not done. But really, do any of us ever completely finish this work?
He tells the story in the present and the past, using the memory of a snowstorm thirty years earlier to introduce us to his mother when she was alive, well and full of anger, his long-deceased father, and his brother—who, from the way he is described, hasn’t changed at all. He is not a very pleasant man. Wayne manages to cope—barely—for two days, at which point he calls his partner, Ralph, to come join him. Ralph immediately agrees and Wayne seems stunned. It’s a telling moment. Wayne, having grown up in a not particularly loving family, doesn’t totally realize that when someone loves you—and you need that person—they are there for you. Wayne doesn’t elaborate on this but I suspect it was a watershed moment in their relationship. As an aside, they had been together as a couple at that point for ten years and are still together today, according to the author bio at the end of the book. Wayne calls Ralph “my husband in every sense but legal.”
Wayne’s week in Maine is written as a number of similar realizations, all presented subtly and quietly and letting the reader draw his/her own conclusions as to what is going on. I imagine those conclusions will be different for different readers, whether gay or straight, with parents living or dead, with relationships good or bad. I lost my own father this past summer so I read it partly through that lens, as well as the lens of Portland.
I am giving the book five stars because of the top notch writing and narrative presentation. Unfortunately, five stars does not necessarily translate into universal appeal for all readers. I know lots of people avoid memoirs and others avoid stories of dying folks. Others don’t like non-fiction. But if you can set aside any or all those pre-conceived ideas and give this a try, you should. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with an articulately told tale of heartache, old wounds, and ultimately, forgiveness and a recognition of the healing power of love. And…even though mom dies, the story has a happy ending and that…makes it all worthwhile.