Adele Macdonald didn’t “do” self-help. It wasn’t that she had any deep-rooted moral objections to it. Indeed (and sometimes clichés just happen to be true!) one of her best friends was a counsellor. She felt her hackles at least twitch a little, if not rise, when folk started on about stiff upper lips and manning up and snorted when they heard a community, school, or whatever, hit by tragedy, was to be offered counselling. She’d never had cause to consult such persons herself, but that was still aware that there but for the grace of God. …. Or nature. Or fate. Or evolution. Or whatever! But counselling, especially after trauma, was one thing, and self-help, for all the two were often mentioned in the same breath and books about them found on the same shelf, was another. With no disrespect at all (well, not much) for the people who wrote such works, she had no urge to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (after all, fear was there for a reason, just ask Darwin!) or to throw herself into a muscularly Christian Purpose-Driven life (though another of her best friends was a born-again Christian), and thought that Sweating the Small Stuff had a lot in its favour. Better than obsessing over it!
Her good friend Eleanor, who ran a bookshop, was pragmatic if a touch wistful about the matter. “Don’t think I wholly approve,” she said, once, as they indulged in hot chocolate and cinnamon swirls at their favourite café. “In fact sometimes it totally sticks in my craw that some decent books are out of print – and I don’t necessarily mean highbrow, and some of them only date back to the 90s – and show no sign of being IN print, but a new self-help tome appears every other day, or as good as. But I still buy them, because the customers buy them.” She sighed. “I don’t even draw the line at the celebrity ones, though I tell myself at least I’ve never sold one that has a dangerous diet in it or could get folk involved with a cult. They sell. Even Harry Potter and Lee Childs and whatever ebb and flow, but the self-help stuff is steady.” They had even evolved a kind of game. Neither was quite sure who had been its originator, or if it had just grown organically. They called it Help or Helpless – Eleanor named a title of a self-help book, and Adele had to decide if it were genuine, or she’d made it up. Sometimes, by way of a variant, Adele proposed the title from one she had seen on a treacherous trip to another bookshop. It could be surprisingly tricky. She had discovered that Mindfulness for Horses and Harness Your Inner Hero (there seemed to be an equine theme going on that evening) were genuine, but Adele had made up the relatively sensible sounding Lessons from a Long Life.
“And you can take that smug grin off your face, or you’ll never be in a position to make up for that particular deficiency,” Adele informed her.
Still, there were times when Adele felt herself weakening, and she had been in a strange sort of mood for a couple of weeks. She wouldn’t have gone so far as to call it depression, but she still wished she could break out of it. It was a mixture of boredom, even with things that used to interest her, and a contradictory mixture of getting irritated more easily and not caring less. She told herself the weather didn’t help – it was that time of year that sometimes seems to stretch out like a piece of slightly damp Blu-Tac between the Christmas and New Year festivities, and the first signs of spring, when all was grey and not even 50 shades of it, and though the days HAD to be lengthening, somehow they didn’t seem to be. Adele had never been subject to a “Post-Christmas Letdown” and probably, if only on account of her hay fever, preferred winter to summer, but this year she began to understand why ennui wasn’t a word only useful to the pretentious and crossword setters. She treated herself to a new scarf, which often served as a pick-me-up for her, but somehow, though she knew it was a very pretty grey and green scarf, and went well with both her favourite winter coat and her auburn hair, it was only a scarf and not a miracle cure.
She was going out for a coffee with Eleanor, and browsed the self-help shelves while her friend was attending to a gentleman who wanted a book on curling. The sport, not what you did to your hair!
Despite her downcast mood, she had no intention of actually buying a self-help book, though treating herself to a book was no bad idea. Despite herself, though, one caught her eye. Eleanor knew her limitations, and her shelves weren’t the most logical and methodical ever stocked and stacked, but she did make some effort at alphabetical order, though often it alternated between author and title, and she certainly didn’t do a nightly check on it. Alongside books on Stopping Smoking and Your Secret Sunshine (by one Serena Saddleworth, so it earned its places in the “S”s in quadruplicate) she spotted one called Surviving Until Spring. Might as well give it a go, she thought, and picked it up as she made her way to the crime shelves, wishing she could at least get excited about the fact that her favourite medieval sleuth was about to embark on a new investigation. “So you finally gave in,” Eleanor said, but she had realised her friend was a bit out of sorts, and didn’t make an issue of it. The gentleman with the taste for curling had had his heart’s desire fulfilled (well, at least, he’d got a book on curling) and Eleanor put up the “Closed” sign with a certain satisfaction.
Even as they enjoyed their coffees (Adele supposed she should be glad at least she hadn’t gone off coffee!) she began to have some misgivings about that book. If it turns out to be one of those books about illness being a challenge and a blessing then I don’t want to know, she thought. I know that sounds mean and it doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’m just not in the mood.
That fear was to prove unfounded. But she barely needed to read a paragraph of the book before she realised that Eleanor, understandably enough given the title and possibly a busy morning, had made a mistake. It wasn’t a self-help book at all, but – well, it was hard to say exactly what it was. On the surface it seemed like some kind of Young Adult or crossover book with the now almost statutory bit of witchcraft and fantasy thrown in, but set in a realistic (at least, realistic sounding) snowbound village. It was also the first in a series of four, although it appeared the other books (which she presumed would be called after summer, autumn, and winter) hadn’t yet been published.
Adele was no literary snob, and had never fancied herself a critic, but she still recognised that the book wasn’t terribly well written. Nobody seemed capable of uttering a word without an attendant adverb, and she thought if someone murmured breathily or shouted excitedly or sneered sulkily one more time, she might just break one of her own rules and apply a red pen. Well, at least, a red pencil. And though the first time she read the simile, “Snow as white and pure as a virgin’s veil” it struck her as quite poetic, by the time she reached the fifth, it was becoming a tad tedious. But for all that, it was a page turner, and though she had her doubts about it being possible in the realms of evolution or biology, the family’s pet miniature mammoth managed to be endearing without being insufferably twee. The heroine, Adina (and there’s always something appealing about a protagonist with a name not unlike one’s own) was less irritating than most, though somehow it was hard to work out exactly how old she was supposed to be – she seemed like a teenager on one page and a young woman in her twenties on the next. But perhaps that was intentional. Though Adele had no idea whether the portrayal was accurate or not (despite having been in the Girl Guides for a year) Adina was no simpering helpless maiden, but adept at starting a fire, and digging a fishing hole, and was a fine horsewoman.
The book was set in a perpetual twilight without dawn breaking, but though its geographic setting was somewhat vague and tenuous, Adele knew that there were, indeed, polar regions where this was the case in winter, and the phenomenon itself was not a product of the author’s imagination. She had noticed that the author’s name was Laura Pemberton, and Pemberton was her own great grandmother’s maiden name, though her first name had been Hannah, and not Laura. Well, it was a pleasing coincidence, but not that earth-shattering. It might not be a Smith or Jones, but it wasn’t an especially rare name. Adele’s own “rarity test” was if it got red-squiggled on Word, and it didn’t.
There was a character in the book who was, rather surprisingly for someone who tended to over-write, and certainly over-describe, simply known as the Old Woman – a matriarch in the settlement. Adele was quite pleased to note that there was, despite the book being aimed, at least partly, at a younger audience, an older character who was respected and three-dimensional, even if she was a bit too keen on intoning profoundly and smiling compassionately.
She had to admit, though, that the Old Woman’s closing words were both profound and compassionate, as she told Adina, “Trust me, child, the spring is coming, and it will come, and the grey will lift, and the clouds will break, and it will be the time of growth and light again.” It might not be great literature, but it still resonated with her, and she decided that perhaps the book had been put in the right place after all, even if accidentally.
She took what had been intended to be a perfunctory look at the flyleaf of the book. Because of the jacket, she had presumed it had been written recently, but apparently it was a re-issue of a book originally published in the 1940s – when, as she knew, the clouds breaking and the time of growth and light coming again would have a special significance. And then she noticed the author’s name, rather more formally presented, alongside the usual disclaimers. HL Pemberton.