Sunday, May 17, 2009
In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. Thus begins this stunning collection of short stories which presents 40 short fictional account of events tied to each of those deep freezes. Humphrey's prose is as crystal clear as the ice she describes. Each vignette addresses how the river is so central to many lives in London, and how the ice floes in a tidal river impact that life. Living on a tidal river, I can truly appreciate how the ebb and flow of the tide effects the ice that forms in winter. We don't get the solid freeze described in the book, (although many rivers in Maine do!), but we do get the 'iceberg' effect so eloquently described in one of her stories. Her words give us a clear picture of the tribulations of waterman who normally ferried people across the river, the shopkeepers who depended on goods being delivered by boat, the inability of people such as stone cutters to work properly due to the extreme temperatures, and the difficulties getting animals to walk on ice. The stories of sweating sickness on the one hand, and the glorious tented fairs on the other provide sharp contrasts. One really touching story tells of families bringing birds into their houses and letting them build nests inside to prevent them from freezing to death. Stories of plague, fire, heriosm, and city life from 1142 to 1895 are exquisitely written and easy to read. The book itself is beautifully done with excellent illustrations to enhance the text. It's a beautiful afternoon read.