Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow. Not a thin layer of soft, flaky whiteness, the kind you might see in more civilized climates--this is Northern Michigan, where the snow falls and falls until it buries the roads, covers the windows, and mounts up before the door.The second half of the first paragraph, though, is what kept me reading:
The nearest neighbors are a mile away, impossibly far. Every morning, the men in this scattered community dig their way through to the barn where the livestock are sheltered from the cold. Every winter, some of the wives go mad.The rest of the story proceeds from this premise, as we discover that the narrator has spent two summers in an asylum for the wives gone mad. Madness is the women's territory, a landscape from which they must be rescued by "months of treatment with a starvation diet, months of bible readings and flagellation."
What, though, is the cause of the madness? Older women offer advice to younger: "The winters are long, they whispered to us; watch out. Don't let your imagination run away from you." Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow...
Who are these women? Mail-order brides in a town well-practiced at holding welcoming parties. If a woman dies, a replacement can be ordered -- and without imagination, they are interchangeable, and no more dangerous than any other tool.
But time can be harnessed in cross-stitches, and devils can be tamed with dancing, and spring always returns.
It's a hopeful end to a sad story, a story that proceeds by a method of accumulation, with each repetition of a word or detail being meaningful. By the story's second half, the sentences are like seasons, reminiscent of what has come before, but with a change in light or temperature. The story begins with colors in cross-stitch "mimicking our wildness and our despair" and ends with new colors inspired by a moment of either insanity or vision: "bright golden thread for Ellen's baby, blue for freedom, purple and red for the other women who had suffered." The colors of threads may have changed, but the colors themselves have been there all along -- blue was always the color of the lake in which one woman drowned herself to escape the asylum, and the awful building itself was made of red brick. The colors, perhaps, were waiting for new, more imaginative, meaning.
Thus, the story itself becomes like the cross-stitch, its threads woven together more carefully than might be apparent from a quick glance. Like a snowstorm, it contains both beauty and terror.