The Road is expected to be a big hit at the movie theaters this holiday season; a story that is about a father and son relationship. There are many writers that explore this family dynamic but few have done it well like Potok’s The Chosen or Hemingway’s “Up in Michigan”. Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003) examines this father and son relationship during and after WWII years in Finland and the woods that border Sweden. A book rich in natural description and stoic language, it overcomes its weaknesses of plot structure and characterization to reveal an important literary and metaphorical look at our haunting pasts and the relationships we regain in reconnecting with them.
The subject of an old man retreating to the woods to live out his final years after tragedy of losing his second wife struck him resounds with the universal and endearing themes of redemption and forgiveness. Wanting nothing more than to live deliberately with his dog, Trond Sander sets out to pasture where he can be alone from the demands of society. He wants to reflect on the feelings of the last summer he spent with his father in a cabin along the Swedish border. But the reader and the protagonist is forced to confront the theme that life does not allow us to choose our early grave of peace and solitude, and the more we try to isolate ourselves, the more the past with haunt and fill the void of conscious action.
Trond Sander, the protagonist, spends half of the book as a boy with his father, and half with a man named Lars who serendipitously is from that long past summer now living in the same woods. The intriguing plot starts with his and his friend Jon, Lars’ older brother, going out to steal horses. Trond is thrown from the horse and later that day is shaken when Jon reveals that his ten year old brother Lars shot his twin Odd with Jon's unattended gun. The author never allows the characters to take the stage and recreate the past with passion and action because of his dedication to return to the book’s present as an old man reflecting on that fateful summer and its implications it had on the relationship between him and his father. The frame prevents the reader to attach to any character even though there were so many characters that could have been memorable and powerful.
The benefits of this book make it worth the read and provide a powerful literary experience. The description and author’s style makes it read like a Hemingway novel, similar to the descriptions found in A Farewell to Arms. The descriptions of the river and pristine woods are vivid with sensory enjoyment and heavy with metaphor in revealing the protagonist’s feelings and motivations. The use of setting is mastery and the characters' actions are as relevant as woodland animals living among this natural beauty and overwhelming magnitude. Though at times taking over the text, the reader will lose themselves among the magic of the descriptions from the storms, to the falling of timber, to the cutting of the hay. It is a book of tremendous color hewn from the landscape of an exotic forest that will echo after the last page is read.
The ending is logical but void of the powerful and mysterious characters that brought you to the point. It is as if the writer just became tired of writing and summed it up that everything was going to be fine. Even though the author followed this odd framework throughout the book, he abandons it at the end for no apparent reason. The reader is left to think that the old man’s retreat into the woods was a metaphor that never actually occurred. Yes, the past was real. But was old man Lars? Was his daughter’s visit? Was he in a comma after the accident that killed his wife? Did he die right there and all of this was his brain shooting off its last synapses? The readers will have to decide for themselves, but if you follow my conclusion, it becomes a brilliant piece of writing where setting is the redemption and the past is forgiven because it is finally honestly accepted.
This is a book that will haunt its readers. As powerful as The Road and more heavily titled towards literature with its keen natural descriptions, it will provide and excellent second discourse to that movie. It will offer a very different and just as passionate relationship between a father and son. If the power of the experience is why you read, you will not be disappointed by Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.