Bitter Thaw: Winner of the 2023 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

Bitter Thaw

In 1956, deep within the mosaic of rugged forests and interconnected waterways that were once home to the native Ojibwe people, an unidentifiable body is discovered wrapped in a hand-stitched quilt. 

More than 30 years later, fresh news of the Northern Minnesota cold case reopens old wounds and forces an Arizona family to come to terms with a painful past – when the perils of gender stereotypes, cultural bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations — a mother, son, and granddaughter —  embark on a cross-country journey in a search for truth and a hope of redemption. 

As long-buried secrets are unearthed, they encounter a shocking reality – everyone’s truth is unique. The revelation forces all to reconsider their life choices, contemplate the ambiguity of right and wrong, and rethink the very notions of good and evil.

About the Author

Jessica McCann

Is an award-winning historical novelist and creative nonfiction author, and has worked for 30 years as a professional freelance writer for magazines, universities, corporations and other organizations. One of her earliest assignments as a freelancer was covering a new surgical radiation technique for destroying brain tumors, during which she was permitted to don scrubs and observe inside the operating room. Reading and writing historical fiction is her passion, though she’s also drawn to memoirs, contemporary fiction, nonfiction, literary classics — anything with a compelling story.

She love connecting and talking books with other readers and writers on social media and at her official website. Check out this link for ways we can connect!


Tell us a little about yourself…

JM: My life has evolved from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reading- and writing-related experiences. The regular library trips with my mom, and the handmade books I crafted as a little girl. The epiphany of parallelism learned from my high school English teacher and the discovery of journalism as a career from newspaper class. As a magazine editor and freelance writer, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who enlightened and intrigued me – neurosurgeons, custodians, CEOs, teachers, politicians, garbage truck drivers, Blackjack dealers, and more. As a novelist, I’ve researched historical events and probed the human psyche. All these experiences have enriched my life.

Bitter Thaw is my third historical novel. My first, All Different Kinds of Free, was awarded the Freedom in Fiction Prize; my second, Peculiar Savage Beauty, was named Arizona Book of the Year and shortlisted for the international Rubery Book Award. Each book is set in a different time – primarily the 1950s, 1830s, and 1930s, respectively – yet, they have similar themes. I like to shine a spotlight on ordinary people living through extraordinary experiences, and on critical the connection between humanity and nature. 

Tell us a little bit about your novel Bitter Thaw

JM: Bitter Thaw explores the power and puzzle of the mind – how our memories take shape and evolve; and how they can define who we are and control what we become. It’s part historical novel, part mystery, part family drama. The history of U.S. laws, policies, and biases related to Native-Americans, African-Americans, women’s rights, homosexuality, and inter-racial marriage all play a key role in the story. A blend of narrative and epistolary elements throughout the book stitches together multiple themes and points of view, creating a multilayered, swift-moving story.

Where did the inspiration for Bitter Thaw come from?

JM: There’s a thick manila file folder in my office with bits and pieces of things that catch my eye from one day to the next – pages torn from magazines, quotes jotted down while watching TV or reading a book, articles printed from the Internet. I keep those snippets for years, even decades, and flip through them from time to time in search of inspiration.

Long ago, I clipped a news article about members of a prison work crew who dove into a cold, fast-moving river to rescue three young brothers whose canoe had capsized. When asked by the reporter why they’d risked their lives to save the boys, inmate Jon Fowler said, “You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. Just because we’re incarcerated, doesn’t mean we’re bad people.” That brief news piece – and Fowler’s quote in particular – grabbed me. I wanted to know more. What crimes had those men committed? Why was it the inmates who jumped in to rescue the boys, and not the correctional officers on the scene? 

About a year later, a piece about authorities in California trying to solve a 25-year-old murder caught my eye. They shared a photo of the quilt found with the body of a woman who had been strangled. The hope was that someone might be able to identify the owner or maker of the quilt and provide a break in the cold case.

I had also clipped a National Geographic article about the five coldest rivers on earth. Among them was the Rainy River, which runs through the rugged wilderness along the Canadian and U.S. border in Minnesota. I live in Phoenix, one of the hottest places on earth (our average daily temperature this summer was 100 degrees). So, I was intrigued by a place where the “warm season” of mid-May to mid-September has an average daily temperature of 65 degrees.

One afternoon, while flipping through the snippets in my idea folder, my mind clicked… on the ability and motivations of people who keep secrets for decades, the love represented by a handmade quilt, the primal instinct of a criminal to risk his life for a child, the way lives often intersect in unexpected ways, and the untold stories behind them all. In a matter of minutes,  the characters, setting, hook, and even the title of the novel snapped together. 

Are there any parts of your background or personal life experiences that appeared in your book?

JM: Each of my novels contains a piece of me. Not specific experiences, but life in general – love and loss, fear and hope, regret and redemption.  Part of the reason I write is to process and reflect on the things I’ve lived through, to make sense of the things I don’t understand about the world and about myself. I share that writing because I believe every one of us endeavors to make sense of it all. Through reading and writing, we learn from one another.

What is the main point you would like people to take away from your book?

JM: That’s tough to nail down. The story contains many themes and ideas that weave together and overlap. It’s about sacrifice, perseverance, mistakes, forgiveness, perspective, acceptance, regeneration. It’s a lot. Maybe that’s the main point, then. The book is about life, and life is a lot. It’s complex and multi-layered, never black-and-white or one-sided. Once you learn to embrace that, life becomes a little easier.

What is your favorite line from your book?

JM: Oh my, it’s so hard to pick one line out of thousands. But an early reader of Bitter Thaw recently shared with me a line that struck a chord with her: “Just because a person carries his burden well doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.” 

What’s next?

JM: While researching and brainstorming ideas for my fourth historical novel, I’ll also be in production for the audio edition of Bitter Thaw. I think it’s important to make stories available in a variety of formats, so that anyone who may be interested will have access. The audio book will be out in Summer 2024.

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Article originally Published in the December/January 2023 Issue “2023 Indie Best Award Winners”

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