Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Thorndike Press, 1992. Hardcover. Large Print. ISBN: 1-56054-343-4. 407 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10, for the majority of this story. I found myself very keen to get back to it and find out what was about to happen next, the most compelling of D.E. Stevenson’s books in this respect so far.
A few years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Mureth. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.
Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today.
With her husband’s full support, Rhoda returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.
Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, and my favourite DES to date. There are two prequels/companions to this title: Vittoria Cottage and Music in the Hills, but Shoulder the Sky works well as a stand-alone; I never felt like I was out of the loop, though there were references to previous events throughout.
My only complaint is the ending seemed a bit rushed. Everything fell into place a little too neatly, and though things were obviously set up for happy resolution, too many plot strands were left hanging. We were told that everything was now set to work out, so there were no real cliffhangers, but the novel’s abrupt ending felt very unfinished after some of the detail given earlier on. (This seems to be a common failing with most of the D.E. Stevenson books I’ve read to date.)
I greatly enjoyed this novel, aside from its minor but forgivable imperfections. The author has set it up beautifully, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world appear to come either from personal experience or detailed research. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas at her best.
Oh! I must make one more comment. The edition I read was the Thorndike Press Large Print version, with a cover of lovely SPRINGTIME honeysuckle flowers. This story is decidedly wintry – a hugely important plot twist is centered on a winter storm, and the atmosphere throughout is shaped by the freezing weather. No mention of honeysuckle or springtime anywhere within – and I was watching for a clue. So a slap on the wrist to Thorndike’s design staff!
This cover is much more appropriate.
And now I must abandon my own cozy nook in the Prince George library, put on my winter jacket, and venture forth into our suddenly frozen world. It’s minus 10 (Celsius) out there and quickly getting colder; clear and crisp with a just-full moon shining on the newly fallen snow.
Grocery shopping, and the long drive home, and then a quiet day at home tomorrow, part of which will most likely be spent constructing the huge bonfire pile which has become a family All Hallows tradition. Or at least providing cocoa and other sustenance for the teens who’ve been plotting the construction of the pyre ever since last year’s spectacular display. (They’re running out of things to burn, having picked up sticks and collected scrap lumber so diligently in previous years that little remains anywhere within easy dragging distance. There was some mention of wanting a chainsaw and the use of a truck. We’ll see what happens. The weather forecast is dismal for October 31st – cold and snowy.)
There might even be a few Roman candles let off, which will shock the complacency of our own farm’s sheep – they definitely do not approve of such changes in routine, and generally wait out the human noisemaking in the shelter of their shed, gently baaing in ovine astonishment at all the fuss.
Happy Hallowe’en to those of you who celebrate it! And to everyone at the mercy of the present widespread bitter weather, I wish you a respite from the storms, and a chance to catch your breath and regroup before winter sets in in earnest.