Book review: ‘Northern Comfort’ by Joan Livingston

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 11-17-2023 12:02 PM

The first scene of “Northern Comfort” paints a bleak but memorable picture. It is mid-winter, and Willi Miller is trying to keep the circulation going in her fingers as she hangs laundry outside her home in a hilltown here in western Massachusetts. Her special-needs son, Cody, and her dog, Foxy, are playing nearby.

The scene tells the reader a lot about Willi’s life. She is poor; she can’t afford to repair her dryer or purchase boots that wouldn’t let the snow seep through to chill her feet. She is a good mother; she does what she can to keep Cody safe. And she is determined. However hard her life may be, she forges ahead.

Willi and her world are the creations of Joan Livingston. Livingston lives in Shelburne Falls and was once the editor of the Recorder as well as the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Even while working the long hours that job entailed, she was writing fiction. Today, in retirement, she is a remarkably prolific author.

Many local readers will be familiar with Livingston’s Isabel Long mystery series. Also set in our hilltowns (albeit a fictional version of them), those books feature a curious, methodical ex-newspaper-reporter sleuth who is aided in her work by her colorful elderly mother.

“Northern Comfort” is a stand-alone novel. Its plot is spurred when Willi Miller’s son Cody is killed in a sledding accident. His death, and the community’s reaction to it, expose parts of hilltown life we don’t always like to acknowledge: not just poverty but also sexual abuse, alcoholism and despair.

The accident brings Willi back into contact with people she hasn’t seen recently: the ex-husband who abandoned her and Cody when the two realized he had developmental issues, a more affluent friend from school whose truck accidentally kills Cody, Willi’s narrow-minded mother, and her abusive stepfather.

“Northern Comfort” is beautifully written, but dark. As I entered Willi’s world while making my way through the book, I was saddened by her lack of options.

Nevertheless, Willi and the book do find a little hope. As Willi helps her old school friend tap trees for maple sap, she slowly begins to rebuild her life.

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Livingston informs the reader that “Northern Comfort” is a traditional term for maple syrup. The slow drip of sap in winter brings reassurance that spring is on its way even as snow dominates the landscape. So perhaps a dark story can find a sweet ending.

Joan Livingston will speak and read from her new book at the Tyler Memorial Library on Main Street (Route 2) in Charlemont on Sat., Dec. 2, at 3 p.m. For more details, call the library at 413-339-4335, ext. 1.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning cookbook author and singer known as the Diva of Deliciousness. Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.