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  • Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast by Thomas M. Wickman
  • Anya Zilberstein
Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast. By Thomas M. Wickman (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018) 310 pp. $49.99

How many readers of this journal consider winter's short days, snow mounds, icy paths, piercing winds, and polar air as hazardous inconveniences, making for an annual ordeal alleviated only by tropical vacation and spring's arrival? In his remarkable book, Wickman identifies this altogether negative attitude as a deeply ingrained tendency—what he ingeniously calls a "vernal bias"—of settled agricultural societies (13). The preference for planting and harvesting seasons is so pervasive, Wickman contends, that even scholars interested in the environmental history and political ecology of places with long winters have largely failed to appreciate the variety and complexity of cultural approaches to living through the coldest months of the year. As a result, they have underestimated "the many worlds that cold created," none more so than the dynamic winter cultures of Native communities (1). By focusing on the interface between indigenous nations and European colonists in northeastern North America in terms of their competing adaptations to the especially cold decades of the Little Ice Age's Late Maunder Minimum (the 1670s through the 1720s), Snowshoe Country offers a beautifully written and startlingly original analysis of early New England.

For all indigenous groups in the region, winter had long been a season of vigorous economic and social activity, including subsistence hunting and fishing. The opening four chapters show that, throughout the seventeenth century, the coincidence of lasting Little Ice Age conditions with the onslaught of English, French, and Dutch colonization created an imperative for Native peoples: Either improve their traditional forms of winter knowledge and maintain seasonal sovereignty further in the interior or suffer from disenfranchisement in colonial centers of power, such as Boston.

Snowshoes proved to be a key indigenous, wearable technology for mediating contests over territory in this period. Used skillfully, snow-shoes' advantages were numerous. Depending on their design, they enabled swift, silent, and energy-efficient travel atop snowfields. But, despite the book's title, this is no simple history of a single object. Wickman draws from a wide range of scholarship in the environmental [End Page 462] humanities, postcolonial literary criticism, historical linguistics, and indigenous theory. He deftly integrates material evidence—the few relics of specialized footgear made before the nineteenth century and the quantitative climate data from ongoing scientific research—with his interpretation of such textual sources as colonial records, captivity narratives of hypothermia and frostbite, dictionaries, oral history, and poetry. As a result, he offers bracing reappraisals of the Pequot War (Chapter 2), King Philip's War (Chapter 3), and the four Anglo-Wabanaki Wars (Chapters 5 and 6).

One of the most salient examples of Wickman's interdisciplinary approach, is the use of Nixon's notion of "slow violence" to characterize English settlers' piecemeal encroachment into the Northeast's western and northern uplands, which remained Native ground for more than a century.1 Not until the 1710s did colonial governments finally began to equip militiamen with snowshoes to patrol and attack places where Native groups overwintered. Afterward, nations like the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Wabanaki began to experience settler colonialism increasingly throughout the year, and winter became "a season of want" (3, 160, 225). These prolonged conflicts over winter lands were conspicuously absent from contemporaneous English publications—such as Cotton Mather's Winter Meditations (1693) and Winter Piety (1712)—which, as Wickman details in Chapter 7, constituted a new subgenre of colonial literature that assumed the permanence of English settlement and the primacy of their ideas about seasonal weather.

The book is focused on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century but reaches into the twenty-first. The penultimate chapter and conclusion borrow Anishinaabe poet Gerald Vizenor's neologism "survivance" (combining survival and endurance) to frame a Maliseet story recorded in the twentieth century about a blizzard that saved Rabbit from predation by Lynx. This fable explains what at first glance seems to be an inappropriate choice for the book's cover...