Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham

Go camping, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Uh, no, it wasn’t. I had to sleep in the crappy orange tent under the leaky section on the side closest to where the trash bags were, and yes, yes, that WAS a bear that wandered into our camp site that night to forage in the food…..closest to where I was sleeping! But oh yes, it was more fun than humans should be allowed. And speaking of more fun than humans should be allowed, that is, in essence, at the heart of Winterset Hollow. Just imagine for a second that the characters in your favorite book of all time magically came to life, and that your favorite book was, let’s say, Watership Down or The Wind in the Willows. So you’re surrounded by all of these wonderful, furry, sweet animals who cook for you, pour you cocktails, show you around the mansion on the island………and proceed to hunt you down and kill you. Kind of like Walt Disney meets The Island of Doctor Moreau. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? I personally would love nothing more than an enormous bunny rabbit to chase me down with a slingshot or a angry fox coming after me with a sawed-off shotgun.

The main protagonist, Eamon, has been abandoned as a child by his survivalist hunter father, and though he grows up to be much more of a quiet, bookish, scholarly type than a hunter-gatherer, his early upbringing has given him tracking and outdoor skills that have made him fall madly in love with the novel Winterset Hollow – a little bit of meta fiction there for those of us who love the work of Italo Calvino and the like. With his two closest friends Caroline and Mark, Eamon heads to Addington Island, the place where the author of Winterset Hollow, Edward Addington, lived in a stately mansion and created his animal masterpiece. The three friends head there on Barley Day, the fictional day immortalized in the book on which all the animals come together in friendship and love and celebration, and have an enormous feast. As the book progresses, however, Eamon, his friends and their other Winterset Hollow-loving travelers discover that Addington Mansion is indeed real, and all the beloved animal characters in the book – Runny the Rabbit, Flackwell the Frog, Finn the Fox, and Olivia the Owl, to name a few – are all real. That’s right, Friend. The animals are real, can speak, have human intellect, eat and drink and read and cook and play pool……….and hunt.

The premise sounds a bit ridiculous. I mean, talking animals? Come on. But it works, and when it kicks into high gear, literally going from a kindly fantasy to a slasher film in the space of a paragraph (though there are hints, to be certain), you find yourself in for a mad, wild, bloody and scary ride. And speaking of bears, as I so eloquently did in the opening paragraph, one of the main characters is a bear. A freaking huge bear that despises all humans, and rightly so, because the humans hunted him, shot at him, destroyed his cubs….his name is Binghamton Bear. He is the character that made me the most uneasy, because, hey, bears in campsites right by my side of the ugly orange tent!! Anyway, I digress.

The book, apart from its fascinatingly horrific and extreme anthropomorphic storyline, can also be seen as a commentary on modern-day colonization, but what I like is that it’s not done in either a pedantic or finger-wagging way. I think anyone with a good grasp of U.S. history will see that these various animals represent indigenous and ethnic groups within our country, with the Addington family representing the white, wealthy groups of people who emigrated over from Europe. The animals in this story are taken from their own home, treated badly, made to entertain, and oftentimes their animal families were killed in the hunts that were put on as entertainment for the wealthy friends of the Addington family. Until, of course, the animals fight back, gain freedom and exact revenge on the members of the Addington family. We come to find out that (SPOILER ALERT!) Eamon is the son of Edward Addington’s younger brother, James, explaining his father’s ability to teach him hunting, tracking, and also why his father seemingly abandoned him as a child – the animals lured his father, and now have lured Eamon, back to the island to hunt and kill him, securing their final revenge over the family who mistreated them. I would posit that the main reason this book makes the reader uncomfortable is not not just because the idea of cute, furry animals turning out to be intelligent is so foreign, but the idea of them also becoming intelligent hunters who turn the tables on those humans who treated them so horribly hits a little too close to home. As well, unless you are a heartless asshole, you feel for the animals, because any decent human being can understand the horrors of being abused, mistreated, taken from the place you call home and exploited, and the subsequent desire for revenge.

As I read, I found myself trying to picture how the animals might be depicted if this book were to ever become a film. Of course, in my head, I pictured something along the lines of Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland, which is far too cutesy for what would be quite a dark film. I picture Runny the Rabbit as being bedraggled, weather-beaten, with his injured ear drooping sadly to one side as he stares with huge, kindly yet stern eyes. I picture Finn the Fox as being very similar to Puss in Boots a la Antonio Banderas – savvy, sharp-tongued, and very keen with a blade. I picture Binghampton the Bear as just a plain old, garden-variety, enormous, scary-as-shit black bear who would sideswipe you with his claws as soon as look at you – after swilling down 10 bottles of wine. With Flackwell the Frog, however, I keep picturing Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows in his elegant suits and ties, and so that is how Flackwell will remain in my mind. Flackwell, as it turns out, is a master chef, whipping up delectable delicacies that made my mouth water.

There were pastry tartlets filled with squash puree and roasted nuts, mushroom caps stuffed with artichoke hash and sheep’s milk cheese, and toasted slices of freshly made bread capped with asparagus, pickled onion and fig jam.” In addition to those luscious-sounding delicacies, there are also fire-roasted sardines with spicy marmalade, pickled tomatoes and olives en croute, mulled wine laced with cloves, cinnamon and juniper. But I was inspired by the tartlets, and decided that a butternut squash tart with goat’s cheese, toasted walnuts and sage sounded like a divine homage to this wonderful, mind-bending book.

1 store-bought puff pastry sheet
2 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces goat cheese
2 cups walnuts
3 tablespoons fresh sage
2 eggs
3/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 400F. Pour the olive oil over the butternut squash cubes and the sage leaves, season with salt and pepper, and roast for 45 minutes. Allow to cool.

Roll out the pastry until it’s about 1-2 inches wider than the circumference of your tart pan. You can measure using your tart pan if you’re mathematically challenged like I am.

Roll up the pastry onto your rolling pin and transfer to the tart pan, where you will roll it over the pan and gently press it into the pan bottom and sides.

Cover the pastry with parchment paper and pour over some dried lentils, then blind-bake the pastry for 10 minutes. Remove the parchment paper and lentils and let cool.

While the pastry is blind-baking, toast the walnuts in a cast-iron pan over very high heat, stirring constantly so they don’t burn, until the nuts turn dark brown and give off that nutty scent.

Combine the two eggs, the cream, salt and pepper, and the goat’s cheese in a bowl, and stir to mix well.

Add the butternut squash-sage mixture into the pastry shell, toss over the toasted walnuts, and pour over the egg-cheese mixture.

If you have leftover pastry and want to be completely twee and just cheesy as fuck, use a miniature cookie cutter in the shape of a bunny to cut out little bunny heads. Use them to dot over the filling so you have little rabbit heads all over the top of the tart. Hey, it was cute in my head so shut up.

Bake the tart for 20 minutes. The smell of the goat’s cheese and toasted nuts together is delectable.

Allow to cool, then serve, pastry bunny heads well to the forefront. I guarantee you will not be hunted by a pack of intelligent animals if you offer them a slice of this tart.

12 thoughts on “Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham

  1. This dish looks scrumptious–and I love the pastry bunny heads! So delightful! I once did a sleepover camp when I was a child–and it was not really all that fun–but this book sounds like a riot! I’ll have to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for not mocking my pastry bunnies. 😉 The book is actually quite dark, though a wonderful fantasy with lots of wit and dry humor. But be warned, it gets pretty hard core and bloody later on. I definitely recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

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