Review | 'Winter Loon'

Susan Bernhard targets themes of family, belonging in new novel

If ever there were a child of trauma, it’s teenager Wes Ballot, the beleaguered protagonist of Susan Bernhard’s deeply moving and beautifully paced debut novel, “Winter Loon.” As a young boy, Wes lives in abject poverty, watching his alcoholic parents, Moss and Valerie, drink and fight. He loves them both, as children do. But Moss is forever deserting them, and one night, Valerie, drunk and angry, cajoles 15-year-old Wes into following a loon’s cry out onto a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. She falls through the ice to her death, almost pulling terrified Wes with her.

Moss, chagrined and drunk, runs off again, leaving Wes with his deeply troubled maternal grandparents, who have dark secrets of their own. What follows — Wes’ survival in their home, which is thanks largely to the gentle and patient Ojibwe adoptive parents of the teen girl he falls for, who, like him, has lost a mother in a traumatic way, is an excruciating but redemptive story, beautifully told by Bernhard.

Moss, Wes’ wayward dad, is the novel’s most mysterious and compelling character. “Sometimes it’s easier to build something new than to fix something broken,” Moss tells Wes in a rare moment of self-understanding. Nothing is simple, easy or predictable in Wes’ story, yet it is highly believable and inspiring, and a thoughtful study of the complexities of family and the nature of true belonging. “Winter Loon” is a page-turner, beautifully rendered, and a most impressive debut.

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