Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses shimmers with blue: the bright blue of a Norwegian summer sky, the dark blue of a moonless night, the blue-black of a flowing river, even the faded blue flowers on the cloth of a woman’s dress.
From his perspectives as a 67-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy, Trond Sander tells the story of the summer of 1948, when he and his father rented a cottage near a small village in northern Norway near the Swedish border. Trond goes out with his friend Jon one day to “steal horses.” They don’t actually steal the animals, but they ride without permission. What happens that day changes everyone’s lives, and can’t help but bleed into the rest of the story.
As a grown man, Trond returns to the village and buys a small house in the woods. His first night there he runs into Lars, whom he’d known as a boy, on the cold, lightless path. And so, childhood events return to influence Trond’s life as he recalls memories of that summer when he was fifteen, the last time he saw his father.
Trond’s memories return bit by bit. In the beauty of sparse prose, Petterson gives us Trond’s father through descriptions of Trond’s own work to fix up his place. Trond is not handy, so to figure out how to do something, like fix the stove or chop a tree for logs, he closes his eyes and pictures his father doing it. Then he knows what to do.
Trond’s actions of today (chopping up a spruce with Lars’s help, for example) elicit memories of yesterday (chopping down a grove with his father and the help of their neighbors). As a 15-year-old he was feeling an excitement about women that confused him. He knew few women in the village and none were his age. Yet as an older man, he looks back on events and knows he was competing for one of them with the other men, including his father. His unknowable father.
Their old friend Franz is still there, and he answers some of Trond’s questions about the old days. Many of his answers have to do with the war, and Trond’s father’s part in it.
Trond has survived some grief, the loss of his sister to cancer, and his wife in a car accident that he survived. He has changed in the three years since; he’s lost confidence. He wishes he had a friend like his father had in Franz, yet as he and Lars chop the spruce together we see his opportunity for it, even if he doesn’t recognize it until later.
Trond the boy wants to be a man on his father’s terms and he achieves it, but only momentarily. He also wants badly to know his mysterious father. The loss is echoed in his relationship with his daughter, who comes to see him hoping for a connection he cannot give. One wonders if Trond’s father felt this way about Trond:
I do not need to defend [my life here] to anyone, not even to this daughter of mine, whom I do like a lot, I must say, and she has come out here early in the morning on dark roads through several counties…to find out where I live, because I probably have not told her that and have not even given it a thought; that I should have done. That may seem strange, I see that now, and her eyes turn moist again, and that irritates me a little.
Trond’s relationships are perhaps more enigmatic to him that they are to us. He’s a difficult man to be close to, but finally, at age 67, he’s beginning to let in some feelings. First he rescues a dog from the shelter, then he begins to accept Lars as a friend. As he solves his own mysteries, maybe he’ll be able to open his heart to his daughter as well. Then again, maybe not.
Timelines are not easy to follow here, but it hardly matters. The blue scenery of this book stays with me. The nights, the stars, the daughter’s sad, blue eyes.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.