Book Review: “Winter Loon” by Susan Bernhard

It was the title that snared me.  Ever since I first heard a loon call across a mountain lake, I’ve loved them. It’s a haunting sort of sound that catches you off guard at first but quickly becomes a welcoming call.

And haunting is exactly what “Winter Loon” is.

Fifteen-year-old Wes Ballot’s mother swears she hears a loon. It’s late at night in the middle of winter and the loons should be long gone by now, but she isn’t listening to reason. She’s drunk, Wes’ father, Moss, has disappeared yet again, and she wakes Wes and drags him out into the winter cold to find the loon. She wanders too far out on the lake, plunges through the thin ice. Wes tries to save her but she doesn’t want to be saved. She seems determined to pull him in with her and he has to let her go before he drowns too.

Of course, that’s just the start of Wes’ problems.

Moss—never much of a constant in Wes’ life—thinks Wes should have saved his mother. He dumps Wes with his mother’s parents, Ruby and Gip, and takes off, promising to return for Wes in a year. Ruby is bitter and cynical, Gip a tyrant. Both of them consider Wes an intrusion.

There are dark secrets in his grandparents’ house. Wes sleeps in his mother’s room, filled with eerie memories of her childhood. He finds a knife hidden under the mattress and after a frightening interaction with a drunken Gip in the middle of the night, Wes begins to wonder just what kind of childhood his mother had.

High school is hard—he clearly doesn’t fit in. When Kathryn Rook, daughter of the local banker and Ruby and Gip’s landlord, starts flirting with him it’s pretty clear she’s only interested in defying her father but hey, what’s he got to lose?

It’s all for fun until he meets Jolene, a native American teen who has also lost her mother tragically—to suicide. Their common loss brings them together and despite the ridicule and racism of the community and especially Ruby and Gip, Wes discovers that Jolene’s family is what family is all about.

Of course Moss never comes back for Wes. Encouraged by Jolene, Wes sets out on a search for his father, in the process discovering  he has a second family, and perhaps a second chance.

Winter Loon is an exceptional and tragic coming of age story about a young man’s desperate desire to find a place where he belongs and reunite with his father.

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