Winterfolk is a brutally realist tale that's told as though it happened once upon a time.
Rain and her father live in a tent, somewhere on the outskirts of Seattle. For most of Rain's life, they've made their home at the edges of a community of homeless people who call themselves the Winterfolk. Rain knows how to be mostly invisible, both to those outside the community and to those within.
She spends much of her time alone, reading a stolen book of fairy tales and connecting with the natural environment around her. For company, she has her father and King, a young man who camps next to them and looks out for her when her father can't. Her world has hardship and loneliness, but it feels safe to her. Then, on the eve of her 16th birthday, flyers begin to appear, warning that the Winterfolk must abandon their settlement or else be forcibly removed.
King tells her not to worry, and takes her with him into the city for a special birthday surprise. It's been ages since Rain last left their camp, and the world seems very strange and full. They quickly run into an old enemy, and she is separated from King and left to fend for herself on a strange journey through the wilds of civilization. Even as she marvels at the luxuries and beauty that she encounters, she longs for the quiet and invisibility of her camp, and all the while, she feels the pressing fear that her home will soon be lost forever.
Winterfolk is all about Rain's unique, poetic voice, and her distant, fairy tale view of the world. At one point, a young boy she meets asks if she's a mermaid, and it's clear that's not just because she has long mermaid hair and is soaking wet at the time. She drifts her way through the story, being washed from one adventure to the next, as lost as a fish making its way on the land.
Everyone and everything she encounters take on this same mythic quality. It's clear that to the outside world, King is a ruffian. But to Rain, he is a prince, sent to protect her. Through her eyes, Seattle becomes the dark forest of lore, full of dangers and helpers, which must be carefully traversed.
Because we are held so close to Rain's thoughts and feelings, it's difficult to decide what author Janel Kolby is ultimately trying to say. Rain is unimpressed by civilization at large, and fights tenaciously to return to her home and protect it. It's hard to not want what she wants for herself. But at the same time, we see how dangerously isolated she is, how vulnerable she is to the whims of the men who control her life, and how deprived she is: of food, of education, of socialization, and of comfort.
If this book were a fantasy, or set in the past, I'm sure that I would feel more compelled to champion the way of life that Rain wants to preserve. But set against the stark reality of present-day Seattle, her plight feels cruel and very dark. The clearest way to put it is to say that Winterfolk does not romanticize homelessness, but Rain herself does.
The thing I find most harrowing is how vulnerable Rain is to abuse. All of the men in this story are a danger to her, whether it's through violent assault, an unwanted kiss, or the control of those who love her and want to protect her, but do so by imprisoning and depriving her. Kolby portrays this in a way that feels very real and true, and it hurts to read.
At the heart of Winterfolk is the hope that Rain, through seeing the greater world, will gain the ability to make her own choices and move forward with her life. In this sense, it is not dissimilar from the fairy tales that Rain reads again and again. Her journey leaves her changed, and more aware of who she truly is. It's rare to find a book that is so gentle and so brutal at once, but Rain will take your hand and show you the way through.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.