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An ambulance drives through blowing snow during a winter storm in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

Wintry Literature For A Snowy Day

Feb 10, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Book Cover: 'The Snowy Day' Book Cover: 'The Long Winter' Book Cover: 'Snow' Book Cover: 'Smilla's Sense Of Snow' Book Cover: 'Native Son'

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Those of us living in snowbound Washington, D.C., this past week have found ourselves starting to run out of words to describe all the white stuff that's buried the city, shut down the federal government and paralyzed a big swath of the East Coast. So we decided to turn to writers who have described snow in especially evocative ways over the years — in the hands of a good storyteller, snow can be magical, or monstrous.

First stop is the children's picture book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It begins:

One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see ...

Another child's recollection of snow was penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In The Long Winter she tells the story of how her family almost starved to death on the prairie:

Laura felt they were going in the wrong direction. She did not know why she felt so. No one could see anything There was nothing to go by — no sun, no sky, no direction. The winds blowing fiercely from all directions. There was nothing but the dizzy whirling and the cold.

It seemed that the cold and the winds and the noise of the winds and the blinding, smothering, scratching snow, and the effort and the aching were forever. Pa had lived through three days of a blizzard under the bank of Plum Creek. But there were no creek banks here. Here there was nothing but bare prairies. Pa had told about sheep caught in a blizzard, huddled together under the snow. Some of them had lived. Perhaps people could do that, too.

From the heartland of America to Turkey, where writer Orhan Pamuk, in his novel Snow, describes traveling into a blizzard:

As soon as the bus set off, our traveler glued his eyes to the window next to him; perhaps hoping to see something new, he peered into the wretched little shops, old bakeries, and broken down coffeehouses and as he did, it began to snow. It was heavier and thicker than the snow he'd seen between Istanbul and Erzurum. If he hadn't been so tired, if he'd paid a bit more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen at the start that he was setting out on a journey that would change his life forever and chosen to turn back.

No roundup of snow would be comprehensive if it didn't include Smilla, an expert on ice and snow in Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow:

At first the snow is six-sided, newly formed flakes. After forty-eight hours the flakes break down, their outlines blur. By the tenth day, the snow is a grainy crystal that becomes compacted after two months. After two years it enters the transitional stage between snow and firn. After four years, it's transformed into a large, blocky glacial crystal. It wouldn't survive more than three years here on Gela Alta. By that time the glacier would push it out to sea. There it would break up and float outward to melt, disperse, and be absorbed by the sea. And then someday it would rise up as newly formed snow.

... You can't win against the ice.

In Richard Wright's Native Son, the blizzard is a metaphor for mounting troubles, as Bigger Thomas dreams up and executes the harebrained kidnapping scheme with his girlfriend Bessie:

He walked to Dalton's through the snow. His right hand was in his coat pocket, his fingers about the kidnap note. When he reached the driveway, he looked about the street carefully. There was no one. He looked at the house; it was white, huge, silent. He walked up the steps and stood in front of the door. He waited a moment to see what would happen. So deeply conscious was he of violating dangerous taboo, that he felt that the very air or sky would suddenly speak, commanding him to stop. He was sailing fast in the face of a cold wind that all but sucked his breath from him, but he liked it. Around him were silence and night and snow falling, falling as though it has fallen from the beginning of time and would always fall till the end of the world. He took the letter out of his pocket and slipped it under the door. Turning, he ran down the steps and around the house. I done it! I done it now!

And finally, there's only one way to finish this list, and that's with the last few stanzas of Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening":

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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