The Winter Room
by Gary Paulsen tells the story of eleven-year-old Eldon and his family who spend cold winter nights huddled together in what they call the winter room. Together they sit in front of the stove and exchange stories. The boys, Eldon and his brother, Wayne, listen attentively as their Uncle David tells them stories about superheroes. The inciting event in the book occurs one night when Uncle David tells the boys the story of “The Woodcutter,” setting off a chain reaction of events.
Eldon and his family of six live in a two-story wooden house on a farm in northern Minnesota. The farm borders on a forest that extends all the way up to Hudson Bay. Inside the house, there are two rooms under the eaves, one that is taken up by Eldon and his brother, Wayne, and the other which is occupied by two older Norwegian men, their Uncle David and Nels. Eldon’s parents sleep in a bedroom downstairs where the kitchen is, as well as a dining room that no one ever uses and the living room furnished with chairs, a sofa, and a wood stove. The family refers to the living room as the winter room, a gathering place for them during the coldest winter nights.
On the farm, which spans eighty-seven cleared acres, the family grows several crops, including corn, oats, barley, wheat, and flax. There is also a barn as well as two granaries on the property that were built long before Eldon’s family took possession of the land. Eldon’s grandfather originally came into possession of the farm after migrating from the “old country.” The family owns cows and two workhorses that they call Jim and Stacker.
Farm life runs according to the seasons; in the spring, the calves are born, bringing Uncle David to call it the best time of the year. Eldon and Wayne’s job is to train the new calves to drink from buckets. Although it is supposed to be the best time of the year, Eldon does not like the spring, waiting with eager anticipation for winter, when there are endless activities to be done in the snow and time spent with the family in the winter room listening to Uncle David’s stories.
After the first snowfall, Eldon and Wayne build snow forts, slide down the river hill on grain shovels, and use an old piece of tin roofing as a sled, which they tie behind Stacker. After gallivanting outside, the boys return to the house as the days are shorter and it starts to get dark early. Their father lights the stove and everyone gathers around it in the winter room. Eldon and Wayne sit by Uncle David, who proceeds to tell them the story of Alida, a beautiful woman with eyes the color of ice and yellow hair that she wears in a braid at the back of her head.
Alida was Uncle David’s wife in the old country. They had planned to come to America together, however, Alida became pregnant, and with that pregnancy came complications. Both she and the child died, leaving Uncle David devastated, unsure how to live without her. Uncle David, stricken with grief, wandered out into the snow where he was rescued by his brother, Nels, who convinced him to come to America. Uncle David has never found a love like that again, saying that he is still heartbroken over the loss.
Uncle David then tells the story of Orud the Terrible, a Viking who was feared even by the men in his own crew as he sailed the seas. Orud had never shown any interest in taking a wife until he met Melena, a woman of great beauty who lived in a house along the sea. Orud competed with another man for her heart and ended up killing him in the process. He captured Melena and took her on board his boat, tying her up so that she could not escape. As they approached land, Melena managed to free herself of her bonds and jumped overboard into the sea. Going after her, Orud forgot that he was wearing a full suit of armor and promptly sank to the bottom of the sea, never to be seen again.
Uncle David also tells the story about Crazy Alen, a man who loved to play practical jokes, which resulted in him being fired from his job as a woodcutter. As Alen felt himself approaching old age and death, he decided to play the biggest practical joke of all. He spread himself out on the floor of his cabin so that his body froze with all of his limbs extended. When his friend the foreman discovered Alen’s dead body, he was forced to cut the door opening to make it bigger so he could drag out the body in a very awkward position.
After this evening, Wayne tells Eldon he believes Uncle David is lying and that all of his stories are made up. Overhearing this conversation, Uncle David is dejected, and for many nights, there are no more stories. While the boys are roughhousing, they spot Uncle David eyeing a pile of wood and then fetching two axes. They watch as Uncle David uses the two axes on one giant log, splitting it neatly in two. For a moment, he seems redeemed, basking once again in the glow of his youth.