At first glance, Per Petterson’s novel is as bleak as an Arctic landscape – an old man, isolated in a small cabin, recalls for the first time the events from the summer that shaped his life. But in Petterson’s gentle hands details begin to emerge, indistinct shapes take form and identity, and a real warmth and resonance takes the place of barrenness.
Trond Sander is alone, but not lonely. Newly retired, recently widowed, he has purchased a rundown cabin in northern Norway and dedicated his life to rebuilding it by hand. His seemingly lifelong goal has been to find such a place, with the intention of living year-round cut off from all but the most rudimentary human interactions. Trond is not much given to reminiscing, but when he encounters his nearest neighbor, a logjam of memories bursts, and for the first time he confronts the events of his fifteenth summer, the year he lost a friend and his father nearly simultaneously.
Petterson’s narrative moves between the current time and the summer of 1948, which Trond and his father spent working together in the same kind of rural setting. Indeed, work is the only yardstick by which Trond can measure himself against his father, since the older man spent most of the war years away from home, and would soon be gone from his life again. The summer work in 1948 – helping a neighboring farmer mow and stack hay, and clearing trees to sell the timber – is done in an boyish fever of competitiveness and hero worship. Trond does the winter work – getting the driveway plowed, sawing and chopping firewood, and planning the improvements he will make to his cabin – with a sense that his father is looking over his shoulder and guiding his hands.
And labor provides the context for the fatherly advice Trond has as his sole inheritance – when he is afraid to pull some stinging nettles, his father tells him, “You decide when it hurts,” and yanks the plants barehanded. As a sixty-seven year old man, with two apparently unfulfilling marriages, distant relationships with his children, and no desire for companionship, Trond is just discovering the hurt.
Petterson does not give up these discoveries easily – he quietly slips revelatory details into the story and allows them to gradually accumulate until the reader is swept away by the depth of Trond’s sorrow, but buoyed up by the sense that he has found the courage to begin making those human connections he’d missed his entire adult life. Petterson also makes the Norwegian countryside come to life in all of its glory, and creates a small but memorable set of secondary characters without needing to devote much space to them.
Out Stealing Horses makes a great book group title. The richness of language, the telling details, and the elusive nature of Trond’s memories invite close reading, but the story flows smoothly enough to make the narrative itself rewarding. This is not a book that shouts for attention, but its whispers truly resonate.
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