With the cold weather upon us in many parts of the country, I thought I’d look at the use of weather as a literary device in a mystery novel I read not too long ago. Minnesota author R. D. Zimmerman sets his Todd Mills mystery series in Minneapolis, the city where he currently resides. As can be imagined, local landmarks feature prominently in this setting, as do geographical formations such as Lake Calhoun and Cedar Lake. The notorious winter weather also plays an important role, not only providing atmosphere to the story but also serving as a literary device. In Tribe, the second of the Todd Mills mysteries, Zimmerman’s incorporation of the weather as a literary device is especially effective, as he demonstrates that it can be used for a number of purposes, including providing interiority and symbolism for his characters as well creating impetus that drives the story forward.
Already on the first pages of Tribe, a crisp Minneapolis winter is the backdrop for the unraveling of old secrets that form the backbone of the story, as can be seen on page 10: “It was a classic Minnesota winter night, the famous kind – fourteen below, the night sky clear, the air still and amazingly pure.” Zimmerman uses the weather here to provide interiority for one of his principal characters, Janice, as she sits in her car and remembers back to her college days and a secret that has yet to be revealed: “Shit, thought Janice, hugging her dark blue wool coat around her, it was too cold for this kind of thing. Early January in Minnesota was no time to be sitting in your car in some snow-whitened parking lot, waiting for a punk to show up. . . She shivered and rubber herself, then wiped a film of fog off the inside of the windshield and peered out.” Although the author also creates a sense of suspense here – Who is Janet waiting for? Why is he a punk? What’s the reason she’s meeting him? – the weather is most often used as a simple device by which the various characters in the story are allowed to reflect and reveal their inner workings to the reader. Zimmerman also uses this interiority to reveal back-story information about his characters as can be seen on page 17 when he writes that the “brilliancy of a Minnesota winter never ceased to remind Todd of the gray Chicago winters he’d left behind.”
Besides providing interiority for his characters, Zimmerman also uses the wintry weather for symbolic effect in Tribe. A good example of this is the blizzard that blankets Minneapolis with 15 inches of snow at a time when the two principal characters – Todd and Janice – are dealing with conflicts that might bury them just as the snow is burying their city. As the sky darkens and the flakes begin to fall, a rumbling – this is the northern phenomenon known as snow thunder – can be heard overhead, and they are both filled with sense of dread. Their unease is effectively conveyed on page 56 when the author writes that “. . . an earthquake-like rumble shook the air, the ground the car. The stoplight had turned green, but neither Todd nor the car next to him moved. Passengers in both cars, like the patrons of the small pizzeria across the street who were pressed against the glass, stared up at the heavens.” As the snow continues to fall and cover their cars, this turbulent weather also foreshadows the challenges to come and heightens the discord between the main characters on page 133:
They didn’t take Rawlins’s silver sedan, which was relatively free of snow, but
instead brushed off Todd’s Cherokee, Rawlins wiping the rear window with
his gloved hand and Todd scraping nearly half a foot from the windshield and
hood. She wanted them to be gone, to be on their way at once, for there was
something she had to do. Oh, Lord, how had this gotten so incredibly screwed
Part of the tension in this story comes from the fact that Todd Mill learns that he might have fathered a child he didn’t know about in college, something that creates a great deal of emotional turmoil for the main character on page 141: “It’s just too weird, finding out in a matter of a few seconds not only that I might have a son in his twenties, no less—but a granddaughter too.” In the very same paragraph the author uses the blustery weather to symbolize the turmoil Todd is experiencing when he writes that a “huge gust of wind and snow belted the car, which caused the entire vehicle to heave to the side. Todd steered back to the right, and he had no idea whether he should be elated or heart-broken.” Just as the blizzard winds are beating his car, threatening to throw him off course in more ways than one, the recent revelation about his potential paternity are wreaking havoc with his emotions, a nice bit of symbolism conveyed through the incorporation of natural elements.
In addition to the creation of symbolism and interiority, Zimmerman’s constant reference to the weather in his novel Tribe functions as a device to maneuver the action in the story. “Perhaps they could still catch the guy,” thinks Todd on page 100, looking out the window. “The snow was so thick, the roads so terrible. He couldn’t have gone very far.” This is one of the many instances where the reader discovers that the winter weather is a force that steers the action of the novel. And, in this case, “steer” is a perfect verb because most of the times it involves people driving cars and having to deal with the inclement weather. For example, on page 50, Paul, the bad guy, “came too quickly around the corner,” and “accelerated too quickly, the rear of his sedan fishtailed out, and his pistol slid across the seat”; and Todd, in swerving to avoid a car on page 61 goes “directly toward a parked car” and then “oversteered a second time” and “found himself shooting onto the sidewalk and into a large snow-bank, which his Cherokee hit with a deep, forceful thud.” Of course, when they get out of their cars, they invariably end up in some kind of trouble, or at least one step closer to trouble, as is seen when Zeb, Todd’s would-be son, is trying to navigate unfamiliar streets in an attempt to escape with his daughter on page 156: “Zeb had never seen snow like this, let alone driven in it, and as he turned way to the left the car oozed to the side, missing the parked, snow-covered car by inches. . . He frantically straightened the wheel, found himself sliding through the intersection of the next street.” As a result of this accident, Zeb and his daughter are taken in by a kindly minister on page 157, who makes the boy realize that sometimes people are helpless in the face of nature:
“I hope you live close by, because I don’t think you’re going anywhere tonight.”
The man, tall and slim with bright cheeks, pushed his wire-framed glasses up
his nose, grinned and shrugged. “You just sort of have to accept that winter’s
bigger than all of us.”
The snow already thick on his head and shoulders, Zeb didn’t know what to say,
let alone do. “Yeah, I guess so.”
As a result of Zeb’s encounter with Mark, the minister, there is a tense moment in the action, followed by a violent confrontation that is needed to move the story forward. It is just one of many examples of how Zimmerman uses the weather as device to guide the story on its way.
In Tribe, it is very easy to see that the cold Midwestern weather plays an important role in author R. D. Zimmerman’s narrative, not just by adding atmosphere but also functioning as a literary device. His use of the wintery bluster and snow storms as a literary device is especially effective, because he shows that the weather can be used for several different purposes, including providing interiority and symbolism for his characters as well creating momentum that drives the story forward.