The Winter Family

Author: Clifford Jackman

Published: 2015

Mood: If you want to read a book that’s historical Western fiction but also takes you down a dark and murdery rabbit hole with zero happy endings and doesn’t bother to be gentle about it.

Where to even begin?!

A friend heard that I was into Westerns, and loaned me two books. One was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The other was The Winter Family. My lifelong issue with being told I WILL like something because it’s popular made me balk at McCarthy (six books-into-movies and heaps of awards), so I started with The Winter Family

I just… like… holy f*ck. I need a moment.

I literally just finished it. I only took long enough to crack a beer before settling in to write this review, because my fingers were tingling with so many feelings to share. 

The Winter Family is a little bit Godless in that the story is relentlessly gory, yet it’s also The Sisters Brothers-level casual throughout all of said gore. It’s dark and treacherous, like how Young Guns or any movie about the James-Younger gang would have been if they were more honest and less comedic. It’s spans decades like Lonesome Dove, but you could burn through it in an evening because the action and pacing are so intense. 

But why am I throwing out comparisons? The Winter Family stands alone. I just desperately want people to be intrigued. 

READ THIS F*CKING BOOK!

photo of The Winter Family book

The Winter Family kicks off in Oklahoma in 1889, then skips back to 1864 Georgia and works its way forward to that initial scene. 

By the time I caught up to ‘present day’ Oklahoma 277 pages in, I did have to flip back to those first few pages, because so much action had happened that I was kind of reeling and had no idea how it had all started. But it didn’t bother me, because Jackman’s writing is so strong and his characters so deep, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about feeling a little lost. 

The Winter Family (the people, not the book) is NOT your sexy Hollywood outlaw gang. Each man is ruthless, depraved, and gives zero f*cks about killing anyone, for any reason (or no reason at all). The figure who unites these mercenaries is Augustus Winter, a terrifyingly hollow man with golden eyes. 

Quentin Ross thinks he’s the real leader of the gang. This guy is a pathological liar who takes great pleasure in killing, and has lapses where he goes on a killing rampage and then wakes up blissed out, naked, and soaked in blood. I spent the entire book hoping someone would kill him.  

Other gang members include the dim-witted Empire brothers Charlie and Johnny (who reminded me of those creepy AF twins in Godless), soulful alcoholic Bill Bread, murderous freedman Fred Johnson, German muscle Jan Müller, deadshot Matt Shakespeare, and an assortment of other short-lived people who just really love killing. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The first chapters bring the Winter Family together during the Civil War, offering horribly rich backstories for each central character. Half of them wear Union uniforms, while the others are Confederates – but none of them actually stands for or abides by the rules of his ‘side’. 

They split up after committing multiple deeds too heinous to escape, but meet up again in Chicago and do more terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things. 

As you can imagine, the supporting cast rotates in and out pretty damn quickly, being murderous wanted men. But Jackman manages to give the reader enough of a connection to each character in their brief moments before either the good guys or the bad guys kill them off.  

My favourite character was Bill Bread, which was odd to me since I usually get into the true villains. But it was hard to feel anything for Winter, given his aloof and totally disconnected personality. I found him fascinating, but didn’t actually care whether he lived or died. 

Bread feels like the narrator, the insider through whom the reader experiences all of the events. Maybe that was because Bread had a tiny redemption story, or maybe it was simply that he acted as an oracle throughout the entire book. Like that mirror that told the Evil Queen what to do, and she didn’t listen but the mirror totally called it. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

This book is equal parts poetically descriptive, an engaging narrative, and unflinchingly commemorative. This was a massive shift in Western storytelling that kept me staying up all night like I was afraid to stop turning the pages. 

The Winter Family is a merciless lens that forces you to look upon every kind of historical atrocity you can imagine, and leaves you exhausted gutted yet strangely hoping for another leg in the journey. Also, THE AUTHOR IS CANADIAN and I’m so stoked that this awesome piece of Canadian fiction is out there.  

It’s f*cking brilliant. Please read it.

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