A Season of Fire and Ice
by Lloyd Zimpel
Published by Unbridled Books
256 pages, 2006
A Time, a Place, a Temperature
Reviewed by David Abrams
For 19th-century pioneers, the Upper Midwest could be a harsh, unforgiving landscape. Isolated families had to contend with blizzards, drought, fire, influenza epidemics and other sudden hazards. One careless slip of the ax while chopping wood could push a hale and hearty man to the immediate brink of death.
It's a world completely foreign to most of us who are lucky to have medical help just three buttons away on our cell phones. In his new novel, however, Lloyd Zimpel brings that hard life palpably alive. A Season of Fire and Ice is a skillful evocation of a time, a place, a temperature.
Set in the Dakota Territory of the 1880s, the novel follows the trials and tribulations of Gerhardt Praeger who, along with his wife and seven sons, scrapes a living from the land. Faith and hard work get the family through nearly every calamity. If the crop is sufficient, without being bountiful, then that's enough.
Presented as journal entries in Praeger's proud, righteous voice, A Season of Fire and Ice shows us how no man is an island. Despite his iron-spined philosophy of self-reliance, Praeger must join with the surrounding community to make it from season to season.
This isn't always easy for him, especially when his newest neighbor, Leo Beidermann, seems unnaturally blessed by a God who takes his side in the game of survival. While Praeger is at first prickly to the unmarried newcomer ("Beidermann having ignited no benign flame in my own breast"), his attitude soon shifts to distrust and jealousy, especially when his two youngest sons befriend Beidermann who becomes their mentor, using them to work his land. Beidermann at first comes across as an arrogant, standoffish loner who drives a magnificent team of Percheron horses and hunts with a vicious pair of Russian Wolfhounds. Gradually, we -- and Praeger -- come to realize there's kindness and gentleness beneath the gruff exterior.
But it's not only Beidermann who is testing Praeger's patience, it seems that God is also putting him through the wringer. In the course of the novel, the family is pummeled by drought, fire, flood, blizzard and a locust plague of Biblical proportions:
The first of our visitors descend, no more than we might see on a normal summer's day. They gaily leap, not so much flying as gliding for great distance: another leap, another glide. But behind these few scouts, the cloud unfolds, expands, becomes black as prairie smoke, as massive as the throngs of pigeons I have seen back East, spreads itself down on us; a crashing deluge, like buckets of hail crackling down. We have not finished tying cords around our sleeves and pants cuffs before they seethe over us, clinging for an instant and dropping away. The cowhides go thick with them, in overlapping layers, those on top covering those beneath, and another layer smothering those.
By telling the majority of the narrative through Praeger's upright, Calvinistic voice, Zimpel presents a world that seems far removed from our own -- even though it's only been 120 years. At the same time, there are episodes which leap off the page with vivid descriptions of violence and disaster. During one particularly bad blizzard, cattle are "fastened to the ice by the heat of their muzzles;" another milk cow meets a similar fate when her swollen teats freeze to the ground and she has to be chopped free.
Through it all, Praeger and his family trudge forward, heads down, a protective arm crooked in front of their faces, trusting that the Lord and/or hard effort will see them through. Likewise, Zimpel pushes us through the novel from hardship to hardship with the singular voice of the 19th-century pioneer.
A Season of Fire and Ice only loses steam near the end. Like a heifer caught in a blizzard, the plot goes astray in the final pages, wandering off into a subplot about Praeger's black-sheep son which takes us away from the more interesting conflict between the two neighbors.
Until that point, however, A Season of Fire and Ice is a stark morality tale told with tongues of fire in a landscape of ice. | May 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.