Dave Carty has painted a stark and beautiful portrait of life on the edges of Lake Superior in his debut novel. “Leaves on Frozen Ground” is set primarily in the fictional town of Port Landing, situated between the banks of the largest Great Lake and a wild forest that intimidates Céline Vaillancourt. Céline and her family–husband Gaston and son Edmund–live on a quiet farm in Port Landing, complete with an orchard, two horses, and eventually two border collies. The dogs, a gift from Gaston to his son that he does not discuss ahead of time with his wife, are named Breeze and Cloud by the young boy, and they quickly become his faithful companions.
Anyone who reads the book’s description will know that some amount of tragedy awaits the Vaillancourt family, though it is not immediately discernible how much. Their construction business and rental properties are thriving, but the 2008 recession looms overhead. As their story progresses, so too will lingering issues between husband and wife. Readers may be frustrated by Gaston and his inability to discuss important issues with his wife or hear her perspective, even as it is evident he believes he is doing everything possible to provide for and protect his family. Edmund’s inability to adhere to his mother’s simple requests (be home before dinner, let me know when you are going for a hike) elicit a similar reaction.
“Leaves on Frozen Ground” is primarily told from Céline’s perspective. Her confusion at her family’s antics and simultaneous love for them are palpable. Listening to her innermost thoughts is effective and provides the reader with an emotional base from which to observe and judge the events that transpire. However, there are a few very sparse instances where the narrative dips away from her; into a car with Gaston and Edmund, or up into the woods with Breeze the border collie. However, these pieces of the novel are so sparse that it feels confusing, perhaps even misplaced. If these narrative divergences were included earlier in the novel or more consistently throughout, it might make sense.
By the end of the novel, there are no heroes or villains, only a sense of loss permeated by hope for the future. Céline does not have a clear path forward, and that feels natural and expected given all that has happened to her and her family. While some readers may wish for a more concrete or punctuated ending, the resolution feels suited to the events that have transpired. Carty has offered us a brief glimpse into a complex family dynamic. While sometimes dysfunctional and simmering, both Céline and Gaston do what they believe is best for their son and operate always from a place of love. Many of us may seem some version of ourselves or our families reflected in the Vaillancourts, even as tragedy moves them beyond our own experience.
“Leaves on Frozen Ground” is available for purchase in Philadelphia at Head House Books, Joseph Fox Bookshop, and Penn Book Center.