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Book Review

This futuristic epic by Mark Helprin was originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The book is now offered in several bindings published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mariner Books, The Eastern Press and Pocket Books. Winter's Tale was originally written for adults.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Winter's Tale has four parts. The first is set in the late 1800s in New York City, with many facets taking on a surreal quality. Machines are described as having animal characteristics, as if they are living beings. A mysterious cloud wall ebbs and flows out in the bay. People who enter the cloud disappear; no one knows where they go. In this strange version of New York City lives Peter Lake, a burglar and general rapscallion.

In a flashback, Peter's immigrant parents set him adrift as a baby after they were refused entry into the country. A race of people called the Baymen find him. They live in the marshes surrounding the city and raise Peter in this primitive culture, but they send him away when he is 12 to make a future for himself in New York City. Peter ends up in a home for lunatic boys run by Rev. Overweary and two other men: the Deacon and Rev. Mootfowl. Rev. Overweary rents out the boys as unskilled laborers and keeps their wages, thus allowing him to live in luxury, while the boys, if they survive, leave the home as adults with nothing. Rev. Mootfowl teaches the boys about engines, gears, electricity and mechanics. His boys become sought-after experts in most any kind of machinery. Peter becomes Mootfowl's best apprentice and spends many years under his tutelage.

When Jackson Mead, a brilliant but enigmatic engineer, gives Mootfowl and his boys a chance to bid to help him build a new bridge, Mootfowl is overjoyed. But when Mead demands that Cecil, Mootfowl's least capable assistant, build a complex iron piece, the boy fails. Mead refuses to give Mootfowl the position he craves.

The reverend falls into depression, and weeks later, he arranges his suicide with Peter as an unwitting accomplice. Peter knows that he will be blamed, and he escapes from the home to hide in the streets. Cecil follows.

The two become partners. One night, they encounter Pearly Soames who insists that Cecil and Peter join the Short Tails. For several years, things go surprisingly well, until Pearly hatches a plan to steal gold off one of the barges. To do so, he has to take over the area where the Baymen live. He plans on leading the Short Tails in a surprise attack and killing all the Baymen. Peter warns them so they are armed and ready to fight. Cecil is swallowed into the cloud wall, and Pearly deduces that it was Peter who warned the Baymen and vows to kill him.

Peter uses a mythical white horse, Athansor, to help him evade Pearly and the Short Tails. As Peter rides, the horse appears to grow in size and power until it jumps so high and far, it seems to fly. One night he mounts the horse in a stable and retires to his hideout in the ceiling of Grand Central Station. The constant running has worn Peter down — he is almost 30 and wants a new life. He decides he must steal enough money so he and his horse can start over elsewhere.

Beverly is a young woman, dying of consumption. Her father, Isaac Penn, is a millionaire and publisher of The Sun, one of New York's finest newspapers. While robbing the Penn townhome. Peter meets Beverly. The two begin a relationship, and Beverly insists on bringing him to the Lake of Coheeries, where her family is vacationing.

Isaac Penn questions Peter, and he admits everything. Although he is a thief, Peter would rather be a mechanic. Though he is poor, he no longer desires Penn's money. For the moment he wants only to love Beverly and make her happy for as long as she has to live. The family welcomes Peter.

When they return to New York City, Peter runs into Cecil, whom he thought had died in the cloud wall. Cecil doesn't elaborate on what happened, only that he is back working with Jackson Mead and Rev. Mootfowl. Then he disappears into the city crowd.

Beverly dies a few months after the turn of the century, and her father dies soon after. The rest of her siblings scatter, and Peter returns to life on the streets — alive, but wishing he could join Beverly in death. Peter and Athansor take refuge in a cellar. Peter dreams of Beverly radiating in a bright, white light. She bridles Athansor in stars and leads him to Peter before disappearing and leaving him in darkness. As he dreams, Pearly Soames and thousands of Short Tails surround the cellar. After a brutal assault, Peter has no choice but to make Athansor jump from a bridge into the cloud wall. Sounds of screaming and tormented voices fill the air. Peter and the horse fly into an infinite black space full of stars, just as Beverly had shown him in his dream. Peter realizes he will die without air, and so he lets go of Athansor and tumbles downward into the cloud.

The second part is set in the late 1900s in the Lake of Coheeries, a mysterious section of upstate New York. Mrs. Gamely, her daughter, Virginia, and grandson, Martin, are braving a horrible winter storm with 200-mile-per-hour winds. The wind freezes the lake into a solid sheet of glass, foretelling a long, hard winter. But the lake's beauty calls the villagers to revel for the two weeks of fine weather following the storm.

Soon enough, winter rages again, and Mrs. Gamely and her family begin to starve. Virginia dreams about a city and takes it as a sign she and Martin should go to New York City. With her mother's blessing, she and Martin begin the trek south. They arrive frozen and starving and end up in Grand Central Station. While looking in a restaurant window, Virginia catches the eye of Jessica Penn, Beverly's niece. Jessica invites Virginia to eat with her and her party, members of The Sun's staff.

Virginia impresses them with her fine education, general knowledge and use of language. When questioned about the Lake of Coheeries, Virginia hints that the area has something to do with the cloud wall. The wall still exists, but in this more modern world, no one sees it or understands it anymore. The Sun hires her to write a column about the city.

In San Francisco, the wealthy Vittorio Marratta dies. Hardesty, his younger son, inherits a simple, golden tray. A word is inscribed on each side of the tray: honesty, courage, justice and sacrifice. A phrase is engraved in the middle asking what could be more beautiful than a perfectly just city. Hardesty takes the salver and leaves San Francisco by train in search of the just city.

The train becomes stuck in snowdrifts by Lake of Coheeries. The villagers rally to the rescue and shelter the passengers in their homes until the train can be dug out. Hardesty stays with Mrs. Gamely. In gratitude, he agrees to find Virginia and deliver a letter to her. Once in New York City, he has no clue how to find Virginia. He wanders the streets until he comes upon the Coheeries Theater. Along the wall is printed the same quote as on his father's gold tray.

Hardesty finds the Penn archives and discovers pictures of Beverly, Isaac and the family. Peter Lake is in some of the pictures but is unnamed. Hardesty tries to locate a Penn family member in hopes of getting a clue as to Virginia's whereabouts. At the offices of The Sun he is introduced to her. They immediately fall in love. He dines at her apartment that night. Both have come to believe that the harsh winters are a portent of some drastic change. They think the new millennium will be different somehow.

Hardesty feels pulled to search Europe for the just city. He tells Virginia he must leave and buys a ticket for an ocean liner. On his way to the dock, he stops to breakfast with a friend who engages Hardesty long enough in conversation that he misses the boat, but Hardesty jumps in after it. To his friend's amazement, the boat stops dead in the water. Hardesty swims out to it, and they lift him aboard. He soon regrets his decision when he sees the cloud wall blocking the ship's passage.

No one but Hardesty has an inkling as to what might be on the other side of the cloud wall, and he doesn't want to travel into it because he knows he probably won't see Virginia again. As the cloud consumes the ship, Hardesty flees. The cloud touches him, propelling him to ecstasy, but he jumps overboard. When he breaks the surface, the ship and the cloud wall are gone. Eventually a boat comes by, and its pilot, a man named Asbury, picks him up. Hardesty offers Asbury his apartment, as he plans on marrying Virginia. She is overjoyed at his return.

A beautiful young woman named Christiana heads for New York City after her father dies. She recalls from her childhood meeting a giant white horse. It appeared to be stuck in the surf. She went out to it and climbed on its back. At first he flew into the air to try to shake her off, then dove deep into the water. When Christiana wouldn't let go, the horse carried her to shore. After drying off, she watched the great beast fly away.

One night Christiana and some friends visit the poor section of the city. Noticing a crowd gathering, they investigate. Inside a crude stadium, horses are led out to fight armed men to the death. Several are slaughtered before they lead out the white horse from Christiana's childhood. The horse is massive and powerful, seeming to fly about the arena and killing all those who attack it. Christiana becomes consumed with the thought of returning to find the white horse. The evening also forces her to realize the depravity of the man she is with. She runs away and finds an apartment which happens to be next door to Asbury.

Christiana and Asbury begin talking through their common walls, spending hours discussing all kinds of subjects. Although they've never seen each other, they fall in love. Asbury asks her to marry him. She says she's a very plain woman, but he tells her he doesn't care. His friend Hardesty tries to dissuade him from the marriage, but Asbury is unmoved. He and Christiana meet weeks later. Upon seeing Christiana for the first time, Asbury exclaims that he knew she would be the most beautiful woman in the world.

The third section begins with the approaching millennium. After a string of very warm winters, a major freeze hits New York City. Peter Lake makes a startling reappearance in the freezing waters and is picked up by a ferry. He has no memory of who he is or from where he came. The wounds from his fight with the Short Tails are fresh, and he is taken to a hospital where he slips into unconsciousness. When he wakens, he doesn't realize he's traveled through time. When he views the city's landscape, however, he understands things have changed. He recovers miraculously from his wounds and again takes to the streets.

At first, he lives as a derelict, trying to make sense of what has happened. One night he approaches the gate of a restaurant and stares in at Harry Penn and his employees eating dinner. Penn and his sister don't recognize Peter because he is unshaven and wearing ratty clothing. Peter still has no memory of his past and so doesn't speak to his wife's family. He eventually wanders off, leaving the others perplexed at his appearance. The arrival of a gigantic ship interrupts their contemplation. Larger than any ocean liner, the ship anchors in the river. No one leaves, and no one is allowed on. For weeks the people of New York City, especially Harry Penn and his staff, are left to wonder at who or what could be aboard.

While wandering the streets, Peter Lake comes to the offices of The Sun. He stares into the windows at the ancient presses. Several mechanics are baffled, unable to get the machines to work. Peter suddenly realizes he can fix them. He asks the men to let him try. As a joke, they let him and are amazed when he succeeds. They take him on a tour of the machine rooms, and he is able to tell them about the devices that have stumped them for years. They hire him as their chief mechanic.

The mayor of New York is allowed to go on the boat, but he won't tell anyone who or what is on the huge ship. His only comment is that a great opportunity awaits the city. The ship fades from the news, but Hardesty, Virginia, and another reporter, Praeger, keep watch on it through the nights. Finally, after months of waiting, they see it flash a ship-to-shore signal.

They covertly follow a limousine to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three men emerge. Their identities are unknown to the reporters, but they are Cecil, Mootfowl and Jackson Mead. Later, as the reporters continue their stakeout, the mayor and Harry Penn arrive. As Mead leaves, the reporters question him. Mead tells them that he's from St. Louis and many other places. Praeger follows Harry Penn home and insists his old friend and employer tell him about the strange men from the ship, but Penn won't.

Hardesty and Praeger are determined to find out about Jackson Mead. They search once-abandoned shipyards and find them bustling. A worker tells them new railway lines are coming, and some men won't touch the buildings because they think they are holy. Praeger tells Hardesty he plans to run for mayor. He feels a great battle will be waged for the heart of the city and vows to lead as it falls and as it rises.

Praeger, Hardesty and Virginia finally confront Jackson Mead. He refuses to be clear about his plans, saying only that he wants to fill the world with rainbows until God turns His eye to the world again and makes life perfect. Mead wants to stop time and bring justice. Praeger is irate at Mead's enigmatic statements and his pompous attitude. He vows to defeat anything Mead intends when he becomes mayor.

The final section of the book opens with a discussion on the infinite qualities of time before again picking up the characters. Peter Lake continues to work as the master machinist, but he often finds himself entranced by the sounds of the machines. It's as if they talk to him, and he goes into a trance. The other machinists don't know what to make of him. They have an apprentice follow Peter. He reports that Peter wanders the city, never sleeps and gets lost in trances, and at some points it seems as if something invisible speaks to him. The boy could hear noises — static, ocean waves and monks chanting — but no words.

Hardesty travels to San Francisco, thinking he might discover clues to Mead's identity. When he comes across a plaque for the Golden Gate Bridge, it mentions something about an eternal rainbow. He also sees a statue of the bridge's builder that looks remarkably like Jackson Mead. Hardesty returns to New York and confronts the mysterious engineer. Mead admits to plans to build a bridge. Hardesty tells him people will fight it. Mead says they have always fought against his plans, but he prevails.

Athansor, the white horse, is now chained to a wheel that he must turn for many hours a day. Pearly Soames has reappeared in the present time, and he frees Athansor because he knows the horse will lead him to Peter Lake.

Hardesty, Virginia and their children take a long-awaited trip back to the Lake of Coheeries. Their horse falls into the ice along the way, but Athansor rescues them and leads them the rest of the way home. After a few lovely days, their daughter becomes deathly ill. They must take her back to the city to receive care from a trained doctor. Pearly and the Short Tails have followed Athansor to the mystical village. They parachute from the sky and block Hardesty's sleigh. Their horse cries out to Athansor who again comes to their aid. He fights off the Short Tails and makes a path for the sleigh. When they reach safety, he heals the wounds of Hardesty's horse.

Peter has a paranormal experience, in which several large men grab him and hurtle him toward the wall of a room. Peter fears they will kill him, but instead, he passes through the wall as if it were air. The beings continue to hurtle him through barriers, eventually even transporting him through the ground so that he sees every person who's ever died and instantly knows how they spent their final moments. After this experience, his mind is partially restored. Although he still has amnesia, the trances have stopped. He finds, however, that he's become a kind of living registrar for the dead. Peter has a vague recollection of Athansor and begins searching for the white horse.

Praeger is elected mayor and tells the citizens of New York City about Jackson Mead's rainbow bridge. Mead will have to destroy neighborhoods and probably people's livelihoods in order to build it, even though it will be made of light.

Harry Penn is introduced to his chief mechanic and recognizes Peter Lake, but Peter can't remember him. Harry gets Praeger to take him to the Penns' abandoned estate in the Lake of Coheeries. When they arrive, they discover the Short Tails have killed the villagers. Harry enters his old home and takes down the portraits of his sister Beverly and Peter Lake. He then sets fire to the mansion before returning to the city with the pictures.

Hardesty, who has been searching for a cure for his dying daughter, sees Peter Lake in Grand Central Station. They recognize each other from their brief encounter at the restaurant. The Short Tails chase them, but Peter finds he now has telekinetic capabilities. He can throw the thugs in the air without touching them. One small Short Tail begs for mercy, and Peter lets him draw close to him. The man asks if Peter has found the horse yet. When Peter says he hasn't, the man laughs and says that it's the horse the Short Tails are afraid of, not Peter. He stabs Peter in the abdomen. Peter throws the man through air. He disappears in a puff of smoke.

Hardesty's young daughter dies, and people begin to riot in defiance of Jackson Mead's plans. Great fires break out, growing into chaos on New Year's Eve. Hundreds of thousands try to flee but flames and rioters entrap them. The power goes out, but Peter Lake works valiantly, even as his wound pours blood, to bring the machines at The Sun back to life, which he eventually does. As he sinks into unconsciousness, he can feel their power surging through him. It is as if he has become the fulcrum Jackson Mead will use to concentrate the energy and light he needs to create his masterpiece.

Harry Penn wakes Peter and tries to get him to remember who he is. He shows Peter the pictures of him and Beverly. Peter's memory returns. He is also certain of what he needs to do next, but not how he will do it. Meanwhile, Mootfowl and Cecil discuss how they really don't want the bridge to succeed, because it will end the world as they know it. Cecil claims it is too late to stop it now; Peter Lake is back and ready to fulfill his purpose.

Peter meets up with Hardesty, Asbury and their families outside of The Sun. They tell him where to find Athansor. Peter Lake wants to retrieve Hardesty's salver and exchange it for the white horse. Peter insists the others dig up the body of Hardesty's daughter because she is going to live again. They go on their separate quests. When Peter finally sees the tray, it seems to be a living thing. Peter leaves the salver outside the stable where Athansor is being kept. Then he rides the white horse through the streets in order to get Pearly Soames' attention.

Jackson Mead throws the switch to channel energy and light into creating his bridge, and for a few minutes, he is successful. Light rises from the city in all directions, diffusing together to form a kind of silver road. After a few minutes, the light begins to shiver and the bridge disappears.

Peter dismounts Athansor and orders the great horse to return to his home. Pearly confronts Peter, eventually showing him the butchered remains of an animal he believes to be Athansor. But then they hear hoof beats thundering, and Peter knows it is the white horse trying to gallop fast enough to fly again. He tells Pearly that he knows what he must do now, and he positions himself under Pearly's sword. Pearly drives his sword through Peter Lake, killing him. At that moment, Athansor takes to the air, disappearing into the white cloud, never to be seen again. The sun rises, and a beam of light strikes Hardesty's salver, still lying outside where Peter had left it. It fills the surrounding courtyard with a golden light.

Hardesty, his family and friends are returning to the city with his daughter's body. As they approach the cloud wall surrounding the city, his daughter returns to life. Hardesty has a vision in which they are all lifted up into the clouds. The city below seems to be alive and holy. All the rivers and bays surrounding New York are now gold.

In an epilogue, we are told that Jackson Mead will try to build a bridge back to the place out of which he'd been cast. The people of New York rebuild their city. Pearly Soames is left in this new city to provide a sense of balance, evil among innocence. It is hinted that Hardesty's daughter, the young girl for whom Peter Lake sacrificed his life, will one day be called to do something similar.

Christian Beliefs

Pearly says that he knows what color is because he's seen it in a flash from heaven and in the Devil's tricks. The gates to the immigration station are compared to St. Peter's gate in heaven. Mootfowl says a bridge is God's signature on Earth. He has the boys in his care pray for Meade's bridge. In his hideout above Grand Central Station, Peter compares himself to God in heaven. Peter also contemplates St. Stephen, who was believed to have changed forms and travelled through time. Later Peter attends church for the first time. He tries to pray but feels tongue-tied. He wonders if people pray as if they are giving orders to a waiter. Isaac Penn tells Peter that God is not fooled by someone's silence. He also reminds Peter that God created the world in six days; Peter should try to imitate God and tell his story succinctly. Virginia compares New York City to God's crucible — its cruelties and heartaches are a way to refine a person's character. Mrs. Gamely thinks the harsh weather means God is agitated. People stuck in a train pray to God for help. Virginia believes that churchmen burn themselves up searching for God, but that if you have genuine faith, you meet your responsibilities and wait for God to find you. The discussion of time at the beginning of section four examines the idea of free will.

Although God is not mentioned in the text, the author clearly tries to explain how time only exists on a "line" to those with limited thought. An omniscient being understands that nothing is predetermined, but everything has already happened. Virginia tells her children that God set the world spinning long ago and then forgot about it. Sometimes, when everything seems to work together to serve beauty and justice, God is reminded of humans. Harry Penn says that as one nears death, you see your life, as if an angel were showing it to you, as if you stood on a cloud looking at it from a distance. Mootfowl is seen in prayer before a portrait of St. Stephen. Jackson Mead tries to describe time to Praeger in terms that resemble Christian beliefs in an omniscient God that exists outside of linear time — seeing the past, present and future in the same instant. A battle is compared to Armageddon. It is intimated that saints are madmen who have reached some level of enlightenment. Peter's rants to the air are compared to someone talking in tongues.

Hardesty reminds Virginia about the Israelites' exodus. She wonders if he really believes a pillar of fire led them. He tells her no, but that it's a metaphor for something much greater. At one point, Hardesty feels as though God is speaking to him in mathematical terms, the same language He used to create the universe. Later, after he falls from a great height, Hardesty senses huge men around him, lowering him to the ground. He tells people that the room had been filled with angels. Jackson Mead prays for the right circumstances for his bridge to work. Cecil claims that if the bridge works it will mean eternal salvation, heaven will exist on Earth and we will see God's face. Hardesty's father says that when a man achieves the virtues of honesty, courage, sacrifice and honor, he can stand firm against the storm that comes when seeking God.

Other Belief Systems

Much of the book deals with the balance of good and evil. The author states that New York needed criminals to maintain its equilibrium. When Beverly gets overtired, she speaks like an oracle. The people of the Lake of Coheeries talk of winter gods playing with the storms and stars. Many characters talk of justice as the ultimate goal of this world. Some characters, such as Isaac Penn, perceive a grand plan, an omnipotent being who has the finale already in hand. Others, like Hardesty seem to think it is a place on Earth that will one day be achieved.

The Baymen believe that one day the cloud wall will open to reveal a great city, and when it does, the world will be lit in gold. Characters often discuss God as being an indifferent puppeteer who set this world in motion and then turned away. A mystical city is discussed in which one had to pass through one of four invisible gates in order to enter: the acceptance of responsibility, commitment to beauty, sacrificial love and a passion for exploration. Because people refused to accept it had been a real place, it was able to live forever. Mrs. Gamely believes there are monsters that live in Lake Coheeries. She used to watch them as a child and feed them pies. They stopped coming to shore when her father made her stop throwing food. She believes the point of this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead.

Asbury's grandfather believes that machines have a soul, because everything that moves has a soul. When Peter Lake walks through the machine room, he is described as feeling like Muhammad in Bismillah. The cloud wall is said to have tried to lift life from the uninhabited lands of New York long before the first millennium. It seems to have a will of its own, longing to draw life from people and machinery. It had to wait until the dawn of the third millennium, when machines called out like a choir across time, and when a just man (Peter Lake) finally existed, to reach out to the city again and succeed in turning its rivers and bays to gold. A hardboiled egg is said to look like the Aztec sun god. The Baymen have a legend about the last days of the world. At that time, a rainbow will rise from the frozen waters and stretch over the white wall. The last of the Baymen sees the beginnings of Jackson Mead's bridge and believes it might fulfill that prophesy. A character says that dreams are not a tool of this reality, but a gateway to the next. Athansor, the white horse, is said to pass beyond the white cloud and into another dimension of time and space.

Authority Roles

Isaac Penn, Beverly's father, is a self-made man with a strong love for his family. He believes in the equality of all men and holds no separation of social stations in his house. His hired help eat with the family. He does everything he can to help his daughter beat her illness. He questions Peter Lake about his intentions with Beverly, and although Peter admits he was a thief, Isaac trusts him when he says he has no designs on the Penn estate. Hardesty's father tried to instill both of his sons with a sense of wonder about the world and a desire for justice for all. Only Hardesty learned the lessons. His father's prized possession was the gold salver. He often read the words inscribed around it to his sons: honesty, courage, sacrifice and patience. These were the things a man should pursue, not petty things like wealth and fame.


God's name is used in vain alone and with the words d--n, knows, dear, oh and in ___ name. Lord and Lordy are used with oh. Jesus' name is used alone and with Mary and Joseph. Christ is said alone and with sake. The words d--n, a--, b--tard, b--ch and the f-word with head are used. H--- is used alone and with the phrases go to and what the. Other objectionable words include pee, penis, pimp and son of a whore. The British swear word bloody is also used.

Pearly Soames is described as a man who naturally wants to kill babies and cripples. He wants to crush them to silence their cries or the sound of their wheelchairs. Pearly's father tried to cut his throat when the child was 4. One of Pearly's Short Tails is ground up into bits by a train. Another drowns in the pipes below the city. Pearly describes his plan to kill the Baymen so he can have their land.

As a boy of 12, Peter Lake uses his sword to defend himself from a samurai intent on killing him. After several quick thrusts, he winds up almost disemboweling the attacker. Peter is tricked into helping Mootfowl commit suicide. While Mootfowl is hidden behind a screen, he orders Peter to strike a hammer to release an oak beam. The beam strikes the screen, forcing a metal spike on the other side to pin Mootfowl to the wall. A coroner explains the violence and illnesses that kill the poor. His cutting of a body is told in detail, as are descriptions of the mangled corpses in the morgue. Peter and Athansor receive many wounds at the hands of the Short Tails. The thugs pierce and shred the white horse's body with pikes and shoot him in the face. Peter does not want to die at Pearly's hands and so orders Athansor to jump from a bridge, fully expecting to fall to his death. Instead, they are caught up in the cloud wall. Many children are killed in an apartment fire.

During the storm that kills his brother, Asbury cuts an artery in his head, and blood is said to fly everywhere. Christiana witnesses a man getting chased by a gang into the streets where he is beaten with steel pipes and chains and then shot. For sport, men bring horses into an arena, chase them down and kill them. When they try to kill Athansor, he flies around the arena and kills his attackers. Some of the images Peter sees during his paranormal "flight" through the graves of the dead are graphic. The Short Tails find Peter on a lake and try to kill him. By skating between two of the thugs with guns, he tricks them into shooting each other. Harry Penn shoots three men intent on mugging him. Pearly Soames lays the pieces of what he believes are Athansor in front of Peter. Pearly drives a sword through Peter until the hilt touches his shoulder.


A young girl is described dancing on stage, half-naked, for an audience of men. Pearly fantasizes that beyond the cloud wall might be bare-breasted dancers and naked women. Baymen sleep with their sisters. Peter sleeps with his adopted sister at the age of 11. When he arrives in the city, he tries performing the Baymen mating dance to get women to take him to their home. He makes friends with two gypsy girls who take him home. They strip in front of him. When he looks at them after taking off his clothes, they are already in bed having sex together. It is not described visually, but he remarks on the noises he hears. They allow him into their bed to "satisfy" himself several times before he falls asleep.

Deacon Bacon bathes with the boys when they are first brought to Rev. Overweary's Home. Those that allow him to “delouse” them are housed in his cottage, which is decorated like a sultan's palace. Harry Penn and his friend skip school to see the young girl dance half-naked. They also bought what was considered pornographic pictures showing women with their arms and legs exposed. One had her chest exposed. As Peter cases the Penn house, he imagines the one servant left behind will call her lover and the two will have sex in the master's bed. He also envisions the police in a whorehouse, and the sergeant curled up with a young girl.

A lawyer says he always gets drunk or goes whoring before a big trial. Instead of being frightened when she finds Peter in her house, Beverly embraces him. He takes her to a bedroom where she strips. He is reluctant to sleep with her, afraid he will hurt her, but she insists. She tells him she is 18 and has never even been kissed. She doesn't want to die, which she knows she will do within a year, without having had sex. He sweeps her in his arms, kissing her gently several times before talking to her for hours. After that, the two make love. The water and bays around the Lake of Coheeries are described as being like a woman's legs, open and trusting.

When the lake freezes, young lovers skate out onto the ice to find a place to fondle and kiss in private. In Virginia's dream, she is said to take the city as a lover. A widowed innkeeper's physical attributes are graphically described. Ten husbands have died in her bed. She opened a boarding house for young men so she could use them sexually. Hardesty willingly obliges her desires. Neighbor boys spy through Virginia's windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of her naked.

When Christiana moves into Marcel's house, it is assumed they are having sex. Hardesty and Virginia's sexual encounter is described in sensuous detail. When Peter wakes up in the hospital, he notices his female doctor's breasts and admires the way they move under her blouse. Virginia fires back at critics of her work, claiming that they masturbate in bookstores. When Harry Penn doesn't fire her for using such language, people assume they are having an affair. Hardesty is drawn to a waitress in a derelict pub. She is described in sensual terms. He reacts to her being pressed against him; he feels her breasts against his chest. She thrusts against him, and he faints.

While Peter hides under a table to escape the Short Tails, he sees a woman performing oral sex on both men and women as they eat dinner. He escapes into a bordello where at least 30 people bathe together in a milk bath.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Many people drink throughout the book. In one scene, Peter buys smalls shots of gin for children.

Stealing: Peter is a thief as are many other characters in the story.

Tattoos: Cecil used to tattoo women's rear ends when he was 10. He uses his skill to help him and Peter live when they leave Rev. Overweary's home.

Gambling: Hardesty learns to play poker while on the train to New York City and wins more than $70,000.

Movie tie-in: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In's movie review for Winters Tale.

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Originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The book is now offered in several bindings published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mariner Books, The Eastern Press and Pocket Books.


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