This book surprised me with its complexity of familial relationships and marriage; the perspectives we have of ourselves versus the ones others have of us. The Winter-Blooming Tree focuses in on the Neiderhauser family in Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
[The setting made me realize how few books I’ve read set in Saskatchewan. I learned that Humboldt–named for Alexander von Humboldt–was primarily settled by German families (German Catholics from the US).]
After Ursula and Andreas fell in love, they emigrated to Canada from Basel, Switzerland, and had a daughter named Mia. Mia, in her 30s now, loses her job and comes home temporarily to get back on her feet. She’s surprised to come home to a house full of tension and animosity; when she was young, her parents were embarrassingly full of love and affection for each other, and now they are not even sleeping in the same room.
The chapters are short–alternating between Ursula, Andreas, and Mia–and we are fully in their heads, privy to all their thoughts. Which allows us to see the problematic assumptions and thought patterns between them, particularly between Ursula and Andreas.
A high school science teacher with a PhD in botany, Ursula begins to suspect she is losing her memory. When the neurologist announces that he is 95% sure that Ursula is fine and that her memory issues stem from stress, Ursula’s mind is wandering and believes he’s told her the opposite. From then on, Andreas can’t understand why Ursula is still so upset. When Mia comes home, and with the encouragement of Andreas, tidies and organizes some of Ursula’s things, Ursula loses her mind. Andreas and Mia are at a loss to understand what’s going on.
We, as readers, know exactly what each of them are thinking and why they are behaving in the ways they are, and we want so badly to shout at all of them to sit down and untangle all the miscommunication and secrets they are hiding to “protect” each other.
They were trapped, both of them moths against glass, clumsily bumping at one another through the opposite sides of a picture window, batting and smashing their papery wings, caught in the illusion that they could reach the other side, connect with one another, if only they tried hard enough.
One of the things that perpetuates the problem is that neither of them have anyone to talk to: no one to help them see things in a different way. Things begin to change when Andreas accidentally makes an unlikely friend, highlighting the power of friendship and empathy, as well as talking out the hard things rather than just the pleasant.
This book would have made a great one for the Literary Wives and anyone else who loves books about marriage and family. It is heavily character-driven and thought-driven – once you give it a chance to build up, you won’t want to put it down.
Prairie Flower Reads: “Barbara Langhorst deftly captures the dynamics of a family in flux. Each character is convincingly authentic and the conflicts they struggle through are startlingly relatable.“
Open Book Interview with Barbara Langhorst: “The Winter-Blooming Tree shows us a crisis of lapsed memories, eerie dreams, and broken boundaries, narrated by three unreliable but well-intentioned family members whose interpretations of reality are so at odds that they can’t agree upon a name for the cat.“