JULY 17, 2021
IN TERMS OF its central geographic location and the actual shape of the state, Ohio represents its slogan, “The heart of it all,” with flying colors. Culturally, however, Ohio barely has a pulse. Cities like Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland offer some cultural valence, but for the most part, Ohio is a bucolic dystopia, impoverished and rundown, its predominantly white, rural peoples undereducated, paranoid, afraid of God, and disdainful toward anything beyond their sheltered knowledge and purview of the world at large. I can vouch for this condition personally. I live and teach at a rural college campus in northwestern Ohio where the embodiments of culture are Walmart, McDonald’s, and too many hole-in-the-wall bars to count, where everybody hangs on the Good Word of their pastors, and where the memory of trees haunts the flattened countryside and the noxious farmlands that constantly waft the smell of manure into your nostrils. I often drive to Columbus to get away from it all. Sometimes I keep going, toward Pennsylvania or West Virginia, into the foothills of Appalachia. Here the landscape changes markedly and gestures toward the Romantic sublime, with vistas distinguished by lush waterways, inspiring skyscapes, and green, hilly woodlands. Unfortunately, the culture remains the same, and in many places, it’s worse. This is where Alison Stine’s debut novel, Road Out of Winter, makes its departure: “Appalachian Ohio, the heart of nothing at all.”
Set in a near-future on the cusp of an ice age, the novel won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. It’s narrated by Wil (short for Wylodine), a young woman in search of her mother and her identity under the thumb of oppressive forces. These forces take two primary forms, masculinity and the environment, both of which Stine portrays as cold, harsh, and lethal. Masculinity is often equated with technological violence in science-fiction literature and film. The opposite is true here. The natural world reflects the ways of men. Wil says: “I was always beating back nature, bending it into working for me, ripping out the multiflora rose thons, hacking and burning hemlock, spraying aphids off the pot.” The same can be said for male aggression. Luckily, Wil is tough and resourceful. Whatever befalls her, she finds a way to prevail.
Road Out of Winter belongs to a tradition of apocalyptic fiction that makes a concerted effort to yank on emotional pull-strings and push the limits of what human beings can endure under extreme duress. Stine takes a cue from novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. In a book-club chat for The Rumpus, she says that her novel isn’t a dystopia. Compared to McCarthy and Elison, this might be true, but only because it ends on a hopeful note. Otherwise Stine’s perspective is relatively bleak, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope at all for men.
Wil hasn’t had a great life. Her father left her and her mother when she was young. Despite being in her 20s, Wil calls her mother “Mama,” underscoring the childlike, sheltered way that she views the world and her place in it (“not much marked me as adult,” she notes). Thereafter, Mama hooks up with a guy named Lobo in a cramped, ramshackle trailer home where they grow and sell marijuana. Lobo is the first of several toxic alpha males introduced in the novel, although he never makes an appearance. Nor does Mama. Early on, we learn that they went to California to scope out a new spot to grow weed after the weather turned sour, and they left the self-proclaimed outcast in charge of the business.
Wil doesn’t fit into any community, male or female, pre- or post-apocalypse. She’s bisexual and falls in love with her friend Lisbeth, whose family belongs to “The Church,” which is essentially Lobo’s patriarchy writ large. To evade the unending cold and start anew, The Church migrates out west. Wil laments: “Both Lisbeth and my mama, the two most important women in the world to me, were cut off from me. By men.” A dominant theme in the novel is loss, especially that which is experienced by women, mothers, and daughters. Wil’s loss of Lisbeth and Mama in particular disheartens her, and when she receives a postcard from her mother after over a year of silence, she decides to go find her, trailer home in tow. Two young locals, Grayson and Dance, accompany her. They’re milquetoasts, but as with all men, Wil is suspicious of their motives and doesn’t trust them. She’s sick of being alone, though, and her desire for company trumps her apprehension. Above all, she seeks agency. “I felt trapped. By my family, by the plants, by Ohio.” She knows a road trip will be dangerous, but she feels imprisoned, and she wants freedom on multiple levels.
They never make it out of Appalachia. They don’t even get to Tennessee. Constant snowfall inhibits their progress, as do various groups of people. One group of anarchist skateboarders turned backwoods guerrillas initiates the novel’s central conflict. Led by an alpha named Jake, the men of “Skate State” abduct Wil, Grayson, and Dance, then make them do manual labor, with no intention of ever letting them go. They manage to get away, taking a baby, Starla, and her 15-year-old mother, Jamey, with them. Later, we find out that Jake raped Jamey and is Starla’s father. He and his cronies pursue them as they take refuge with another group, this one run by women whose eco-ideals and practices appeal to Wil, but not enough to ground her. Eventually Grayson and Dance go their separate ways, leaving Wil, Jamey, and Starla on their own. The story climaxes when Jake tries to kill Jamey and retrieve his child. Instead, Wil brutally knifes Jake, then saves Jamey and Starla, ushering them to a greenhouse on a hill that seems more like a dream than reality. If nothing else, the greenhouse is an appropriate symbol for the growth, new life, and personal exodus that Wil so desperately craves. Jamey and Starla, then, function as vicarious surrogates for the loss of her own mother-daughter relationship and the prospect of a better, healthier life beyond the tyranny of men.
On the final page, Wil refers to herself to a witch who “knew the secrets of the wild plants. They whispered to me, like wind through the long grass. […] Only I knew where the nettles grew, gathered willow bark by the stream. Only I could heal the maiden’s heart, find the warmth in the cold cold room, deep underground.” In addition to aligning her protagonist with an entire history of American “witches” persecuted by men for their anti-religious (i.e., anti-patriarchal) behavior, Stine depicts Wil as an omega woman, a solution (or at least an alternative) to a dying world constructed and controlled by entitled alpha men. This was the case before the novel’s pandemic, too. “The world’s gone crazy,” Grayson remarks after they escape from Skate State. “No,” Jamey corrects him. “It was always this way.”
Wil’s culminating assertion of her witch-like identity is a compensatory wish-fulfillment fantasy. She isn’t special — the universe doesn’t care about anybody, as the terminal winter reminds us — but she does have an edge. For all of his shortcomings, Lobo taught her how to be a fighter. That’s how she trounced Jake. He “made me practice,” she admits, “springing on me when I came home from school, or with my arms full of groceries, grabbing me from behind.” Most of all, he taught her that “[n]othing was safe. Nothing would ever be safe, not for me.” Armed with this decidedly masculine know-how in spite of herself (and Lobo, and all men), Wil attempts to will a more utopian world into existence, and for her, the greenhouse is the seed. Fittingly, the last image and sentence in the book depicts Starla “reach[ing] for the seeds at her feet.”
As I read Road Out of Winter, I was reminded of The Walking Dead, Z Nation, and similar texts, sans zombies. Stine actually admitted to binge-watching Z Nation while writing it. The focus on (or rather, the fetishization of) developing character backstories and relationships dominates the landscape of the novel’s moribund world as much as its author’s familiar modus. More than zombie narratives, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herland kept leaping to mind. Like Wil, the narrator and protagonist of Gilman’s story is literally, metaphorically, and psychologically trapped, strong-armed, and imprisoned by men who purport to know what’s best for her; to a lesser degree, the camp of forest-dwelling women that Wil and company encounter after Skate State made me think of Herland’s feminist utopia. In her book chat, Stine even suggests that a land of “hers” is the next step: “Wil is a survivor. Jamey is a survivor. Starla is a survivor. And together, they’re going to make a new world. And maybe it’s a world led by women. Maybe it’ll take almost the entire wide world freezing or burning down to do it, but maybe it’s time.”
Stine’s overt critique of masculinity and patriarchy is not necessarily innovative or original; then again, if men didn’t continue to act in the same ways, they wouldn’t generate the same critiques. Regardless, the novel is well written and a poignant reminder of how we chronically neglect ourselves and our world. I wanted more from the story, but sometimes I expect too much from contemporary literature. I can’t really blame authors; most publishers, agents, editors, educators, and master-class “teachers” compel them to write canned fiction with relatable characters that can easily be adapted into screenplays, and Road Out of Winter is certainly a good candidate for a movie. I suspect, though, that screenwriters might inject more action and violence into the plot. In fact, not much really happens in the book as Wil oscillates between pushing forward on her journey and flashing back to her past. But that’s the point, and Stine’s capable, dulcet prose makes us feel it: the lonesome monotony of a cold, slow-paced future and one woman’s struggle to navigate that future in tandem with a history that has short-changed her.
D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus, the reviews editor of Extrapolation, and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction.