For those of you who have been around for a while, you might remember me referencing this awesome page-a-day book calendar I had. It was awesome. Every day had a new book recommended to me along with a plot summary and a sentence or two about the author. I added a ton of books to my TBR with this calendar (24) and I’m slowly getting through them with eight to go. Only one of the 16 I’ve read so far had a 2-Star rating and none have gotten a 1. This was a solid group of books and I can say with confidence that Out Stealing Horses was a good recommendation from the calendar.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born)
Summary from Goodreads:
Trond’s friend Jon often appeared at his doorstep with an adventure in mind for the two of them. But this morning was different. What began as a joy ride on “borrowed” horses ends with Jon falling into a strange trance of grief. Trond soon learns what befell Jon earlier that day–an incident that marks the beginning of a series of vital losses for both boys.
Set in the easternmost region of Norway, Out Stealing Horses begins with an ending. Sixty-seven-year-old Trond has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated area to live the rest of his life with a quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on that fateful summer.
This was a very character-driven book and for me, that worked against it. I like books that have a bit more action than this one. There were parts packed with action, like a bridge exploding and a boy being killed, but these things were not central to the plot. The journey was Trond realizing the nature of his relationship with his father and becoming a man. I might have rated it lower if it weren’t for the writing. It was absolutely beautiful. There were passages I stopped and re-read because they were so powerful that I needed to re-experience them. I even read some aloud to my husband, which is unusual for me. I might have missed the big ‘moment’ in this book because I read it in two chunks with another book in between, but it didn’t ‘wow’ me as much as I’d hope it would.
Trond was a wonderful character. I loved his hopefulness as a child and his resilience to the bad things going on around him. He was aware of his changes, but still unfamiliar with what was happening to him and I thought that worked well. He was trying to figure out what was going on around him with only part of the puzzle and I liked the things he pointed out and I felt they were realistic observations and conclusions for someone in his situation. Older Trond was as likable and in many ways, was just as young as his boyhood self. He had an incredible amount of strength and endurance for a retired man (maybe men are just better in Norway) and I found his reclusiveness endearing.
Lars was my favorite character. I thought his emotional journey from a boy to older man was fascinating. I can’t imagine living with the guilt of what Lars had done. When he finally told his story to Trond in the end, I was touched. I understood his jealousy and anger and how misplaced it must have felt. I thought he was a very complex character and I enjoyed his role in the story.
Ther are times when I want to be alone, like Trond. I want to focus on the things that are important to me and enjoy what I’m doing, even if it’s hard work. I envied his life in the cabin from time to time, especially when picking this book up after a long day in the office. I’m not sure I could stand such an extreme loneliness as Trond subjected himself to, but it seems appealing from time to time! My parents have a cabin and I was reminded of it frequently when Trond spoke about his home. It made me want to visit.
I liked the scenes in Trond’s youth when he’s learning about his father and Jon’s family. The relationship between Trond, his father, and Jon’s mother kept me reading because I was so confused by it all! I couldn’t imagine how Jon’s father felt the whole time and when Lars explained what happened with his father, it made sense to me. I loved this plotline and how it was interwoven with Trond’s story.
I struggled to understand what Trond’s father was doing. I understood some of it, as far as smuggling people and goods across the border during wartime, but didn’t understand why he had to be away from home and in hiding when Jon’s mother didn’t. It seemed to me that they were equally culpable in whatever it was that he needed to hide from. I believe that I understood ‘out stealing horses’ was their code for taking something across the border, but I might have imagined that to give the title more meaning.
To me, this was a classic coming of age tale and reminded me a lot of Richard Ford’s Canada which I read last summer. Both deal with a boy finding his way in the world without a good father figure to carve a path or, in the case of Trond, with one carving a path but disappearing before everything was set in his mind. I think Trond needed his father to be around a bit longer to grow up properly and that his desire to be alone comes from not learning how to love from his father (am I getting deep or what?). I think that, in his mind, Trond needed his father to tell him it wasn’t his fault Jon’s father broke his leg and that there was nothing romantic between Jon’s mother and him and that the way he felt about Jon’s mother was normal. Trond didn’t get the affirmation he needed from his dad.
Writer’s Takeaway: As I’ve said, the writing in this book made up for my lack of enjoyment in the plot. I loved how Petterson would take a moment in the novel to say something about humankind that was so deep and profound that it almost took you out of the story. There are some universal truths that are worth interrupting the narrative to point out. This was a favorite:
People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with ours, and that lets you off the hook. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to. You only have to be polite and smile and keep paranoid thoughts at bay, because they will talk about you no matter how much you squirm, it is inevitable, and you would do the same thing yourself.
Beautiful writing but a slow plot for my liking. Three out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.
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