Review: ‘Waiting Out Winter’ by Kelli Owen

Kelli Owen’s Waiting Out Winter is a post-apocalyptic novella with a fresh twist, in that it doesn’t involve zombies, nuclear war, terrorism, cannibalism, or any of the other staples of the end-of-the-world genre. Instead of a grand act, the world ends on an innocuous black cloud of human error, borne on tiny, buzzing wings.

Three men – Nick, his brother-in-law Jerry and their mutual friend Scott – are returning to civilization after a two-week hunting trip that’s kept them in the woods and completely out of touch. As they make their way home to Hayward, Wisconsin, they notice that at least one thing hasn’t changed while they were away – there are still hundreds of thousands of tent worms on the ground, an infestation that began before they left for their getaway. Other things are different, though – the streets are deserted, businesses are closed, and they can’t raise any stations on the radio. By the time the guys drop Nick off at his house, they’ve all begun to suspect that something terrible has happened. They are right.

I’ll let Kelli Owen tell you what happened, and how it happened. She does such a good job of passing the news along in her book, there’s no need for me to muck it up here. In just a few short pages of exposition, Owen allows Nick’s wife, Jamie, to convey to him – and to us – the nightmarish breakdown of society that’s taken place while he was up in the woods drinking with his buddies. All I’ll say is that it involves a misguided attempt to take care of the tent worms, a massive domino run of mistakes that are all too possible if you really think about it.

From here the story becomes a claustrophobic survival tale as the world shrinks in on itself and the characters. Owen uses the situation to produce a smart commentary on the way our society’s increasingly reclusive tendencies cost us more in the way of companionship and caring than they can ever benefit us. She also uses the situation to produce a taut, tense, and often sad tale of loss and desperation. There’s a scene revolving around a makeshift funeral pyre that will both haunt and break your heart.

Waiting Out Winter was released earlier this year by Thunderstorm Books in both a limited hardcover edition and a trade paperback edition. While those editions appear to be sold out, it’s now available in eBook format, and a bargain at that price. This is a lean little tale, but – like the deadly little creature that stands at its center – it comes in packing quite a punch despite its size. I can’t recommend it enough.