An early morning adventure out stealing horses leads to the tragic death of one boy and a resulting lifetime of guilt and isolation for his friend, in this moving tale about the painful loss of innocence and of traditional ways of life that are gone forever.
The book takes place in 1999 with frequent flashbacks to 1948. The story concerns Trond Sander, a 67-year-old man coming to terms with his aging body and still grieving three years after the deaths of his wife and sister. Telling no one, not even his two grown daughters, Trond takes his pension and moves to an isolated lakeside cabin in the wilds of northern Norway. There he plans to live out the rest of his life in quiet solitude. He spends his days repairing his ideally situated but ramshackle cabin, taking walks with his beloved dog, absorbing the beauty of nature that fill his senses with pleasure at every turn, and dealing with the mundane necessities of everyday life. He has an acute desire to be alone, and is, in every way, perfectly content with this isolation.
Circumstances bring Trond together with one of his neighbors, Lars Haug, another solitary man. It doesn’t take both men very long to realize that they share a mysterious common heritage of heartache some fifty years earlier when Trond was 15 and Lars was a 10-year-old neighbor boy, the little brother of his close friend Jon. Long dormant memories are awakened, old wounds opened; yet both men avoid discussing their common history of emotional pain.
It is this mystery of what really happened between their two families in the summer of 1948 that holds the book together. Slowly, over the course of the novel, bits and pieces of their shared history become known. Petterson artfully chooses to reveal mere tidbits of facts, barely hinting at any deeper emotional impact, always leaving questions unanswered. The author leaves it up to the reader to put the pieces together, and add meaning to the whole. In order to do this, readers must use their own experience to help them supply feelings, opinions and assumptions about each character’s motivations. This technique is certainly the genius behind this novel: it makes the reader an active participant in the figuring out all the “what,” how,” and “why” of events. Among any group of readers discussing this book, there will be significant differences in how the events are interpreted and found meaningful. That is why this book has such a profound emotional impact: readers must take it into their hearts and make it meaningful in terms of their own life experiences.
There is a lovely passage early in the book when Trond is thinking about his quiet, arms-length assimilation into the village community near his cabin. This passage is noteworthy because it reveals not only a great deal about the main character’s personality and mature understanding of life, but also lets readers in on how the author plans to reveal Trond’s story over the course of the novel. In this passage, Trond thinks about his basic interactions with village people and reasons:
"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 yours, and that lets you off the hook" (page 73).
So, don’t be surprised at the end of this book when you find the author doesn’t put himself on a hook and reveal every crucial detail about how the events actually play out. Enjoy finding your own meaning, and trusting your own interpretation. If you do, you’ll join legions of readers around the world who hold this book close to their hearts.
This book gets my unqualified highest recommendation.
A tragedy takes place during that ill-fated summer, forever changing both Trond and his family , as well as the directly affected family . Both families fall apart in the aftermath.
Many years later, the young man, Trond, is now 67 and has lost his second wife to a car accident. Trond decides to live out his final years in small isolated cabin, much like the cabin that he spent with his father during a summer many years ago. A chance encounter with a neighbour brings back memories of that tragic summer many years ago. Trond more or less re-lives his that summer, from the point of view of someone aged 67, rather than 15, and we as readers come to realize that much more went on that summer than Trond understood when he was a young boy.
That said, there is a fair amount of symbolism and unanswered questions for me. Perhaps some questions are intentionally left unanswered, or for us as readers to fill in as we understand life.
For this book, this is a very long piece of direct insight on Trond's part, but I'll quote it here ,page 73 Trond, our narrator, thinks to himself:
" 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 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 yours, and that let's you off the hook. No - one can touch you unless you yourself want them too."
Perhaps that is why while I understand much of Trond's life much better as he retells it as an adult, I am also left with questions. Perhaps the author planned it that way. A brilliant,nuanced, moving but understated book. 4 stars.
Trond Sander, in his late sixties, has moved to a remote location in Norway, fulfilling a long standing desire to live the remainder of his days in solitude. Unexpectedly, he encounters Lars Haug, an acquaintance from his distant past, from a summer he spent in the forests of Norway with his father when he was fifteen years old. Trond’s narrative moves between present day and that fateful summer of 1948, the events of which altered his life forever. Trond gently and non-judgmentally makes peace with life from the perspective of old age. Like Trond’s reminiscences, Per Petterson’s prose is sensory, poignant, and tranquil:
“… I see how each movement through the landscape took colour from what came afterwards and cannot be separated from it. And when someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not any more. If I just concentrate I can walk into memory’s store and find the right shelf with the right film and disappear into it and still feel in my body that ride through the forest with my father …” (237)
Out Stealing Horses is still more than this – a novel of double meanings and two sets of twins. Petterson handles all, including the continuous time transitions, expertly. Highly recommended!
The crucial part of Trond´s own story happens In the summer of 1947. Trond and his father stays at a cabin Jacob has bought. It lies close to where the resistance work took place and close to where Jon, his twin brothers, father and mother live.
Jon and Trond soon become close friends, Trond does not know about his father´s war history at this point. One night Jon asks Trond to come with him, "out stealing horses". The idea is that each of the teenagers "borrow" a horse from the richest farmer´s corral for a nightly tour. During this adventure two things happens that has bearing to the story; Jon deliberately ruins a bird´s nest when Trond comments on the beauty of it, and Trond is violently flung off his horse. Next day his father sees his injury and tells him; "You decide how much it hurts".
Jon disappears the following day, and Trond does never see him again; He learns that the day before their nightly adventure one of the 10 years old twins accidentally killed the other while they were playing with Jon´s unsecured hunting rifle, while he was supposed to look after them.
Trond learns about his father´s past from one of his father´s companions during the summer, a summer he and his father spend working in the forest. The relationship between them is on of trust. When Trond returns to the city, he believes his father is to follow. He does not, and Trond is never to know his whereabouts.
The teenager Trond does not quite understand, but the reader and the implicated grown ups do; Jon´s mother cannot leave her (broken) husband after they have lost both the youngest and the eldest son.
Trond tells the story as a man in his sixties, he has just lost his beloved wife in a car accident, sold his house and retreated to a small rural setting, and winter is coming. It is the work with the timber, and the new trauma that brings the old story up, and we get to know the two stories; the old man´s and the teenager´s at the same time. Then Trond meets another loner, they help each other with the snow, the wood, the heavy duty work, and recognize each other; it is Lars, the surviving twin. Lars tells that Jon had become a sailor, travelled the seven seas for many years before coming home and taking the farm from him (who had stayed home helping his parents) as his lawful heritage. Lars left the farm he had cultivated, and had not seen his elder brother Jon since then.
Only when one of Trond´s three daughters shows up, telling what hunt it has been to find him, you understand the symmetry of Jacob´s and Trond´s way of responding to life; Life is a galloping horse to anyone - when it kicked, the response of both father and son were fleeing. Trond gets a second chance both to "decide" how much room the new trauma shall be given - and maybe finally come to terms with the old injury and to forgive ....
It is a book about the "the horse" none has been able to escape since Eve stole the apple, and more important; about the secondary injury that lies in our response to the pain when life hits us hard, when we occasionally fall from the horse. Our response to pain is our responsibility, so often how we deal with what hurts make more damage than the original pain, both for the inflicted, and for the people around him/her.
The story of Jon is indirectly told, and in few and scattered words, but his shadow penetrates to the deeper and darker layer of the human psychology and never leaves the book: Surely neither his initiative to go "Out stealing horses" nor showing the bird´s nest to Trond just to ruin it the moment Trond recognized it as a the fragile homely beauty it is, were coincidental? The question is; was his not-remebering to secure his hunting rifle not a coincidence either? Young as he was, Jon was a seasoned marksman, bringing small game at a steady rate to the house, and he was well aware his brothers loved to play with the emptied rifle...
A teenager´s deliberate(?) work to save his family? You do not ask the question until you learn Lars´s story; Jon is a sailor..... Is he a surviver that does what is takes to stay afloat? We get to know that he guards what is his, collecting his "heritage" without regard to his second brother´s life - - either?
The structure is stringent, the style is subtle, lyrical at times. The result is as amazing, like a Callas effortlessly singing the lightest coloratura as if her voice was not dramatic, powerful.
All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as if often did. I have been lucky....I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence.
He has not completely cut himself off from civilization; he goes into the nearby town for supplies and he has a car and a radio, though he chooses to eschew television and is ambivalent about hooking up to the telephone service. He spends his days getting the place in order, fishing, and walking his dog until one night his peace is disturbed by a neighbor whistling for his straying dog, and he goes out to assist him. He recognizes the neighbor as someone from his distant past, and the recognition sets into motion the opening up of his memory-hoard, and we encounter a man reaching for his adolescence, his experience during the Nazi occupation, his parents, and an old friendship.
The novel unfolds as a series of revelations, some shocking, some subtle -- it has the quality of a investigative mystery, but a highly lyrical and beautifully written one. It is also a meditation on the rites of passage of adolescence and of aging. As in much Scandinavian writing, a focus on the struggle to live within nature, always tending carefully to one's tools, is central to the gestalt of the book.
Only a few loose ends took a half star off my perfect rating. Highly recommended.
Petterson's writing is terrific; the language is beautiful. He weaves the stories of Trond's present and past together seamlessly. The language has a particular rhythm to it, like waves lapping on the side of a boat. And yet it's also impossible to put down and has a strong emotional pull: I felt extreme sadness for losses in Trond's life, and at the same time I felt the peace and acceptance he had achieved.
Highly recommended ... not to be missed.
Trond Sander moved to a cabin in the Norwegian countryside after retiring. His plan was to escape the ghosts of his past and live a simple, rural life. He managed to avoid his nearest neighbor until a fateful night when the neighbor’s dog ran off. When Trond left his home to assist, he recognized his neighbor as Lars, the brother of a childhood friend. This chance encounter was a domino effect, forcing Trond to relive painful memories of his past and deal with the ghosts he was trying to escape.
The story then moved to Trond’s time as a 15-year-old-boy, staying with his father in a cabin one summer. This was Trond’s “coming of age” – a time when he learned about friendship and his father’s past during World War II. Many secrets were revealed, and Trond left that summer cabin a changed person.
Petterson’s characterization was spot on, his plot steady and his language beautiful. Translated from Norwegian, Out Stealing Horses rolled off its pages like a song. Throughout many tragedies, Petterson mixed in some humor and touching moments. It was a well-balanced tale.
Who would I recommend Out Stealing Horses to? Anyone who loves great literary fiction – it’s a book not to miss.
It's a beautifully written book that revolves in the end around a father-son relationship.
It found its place on the top ten list of The New York Times best books of 2007.
One of the themes of the novel is free will versus fate. The main character, Trond, believes his life is determined by his own actions and choices. Yet ironically he is a lifelong fan of Charles Dickens, the very epitome of a fateful view of the universe - the good guys always come out on top and the bad guys get their due in the end - it's fated! Dickens is mentioned numerous times including the Bildungsroman David Copperfield, an implied favorite of Tronds. The question arises, how does Trond reconcile his own view of his life versus his love of Dickens (free will versus fate); how do we as readers reconcile Pettersons novel, which is modern in approach (characters have free will), with Tronds recounted life, which seems to be fated by the pattern of life-events inherited from his father? In fact Trond does what we all do: believe we operate according to free will moving forward in time, but when looking backward, we search for meaning, for stories, to explain what happened - the very thing Petterson demands of his readers. Fate and free will is one of the great questions, and it is a great piece of modern literature that can play with it so.. quietly.
At times there seems a log jam as Patterson’s words are the bare minimum needed to move the story forward. Surroundings, actions, emotions are described, but in a trickle of words. Then the flow picks up and color enters the picture as his elegantly sparse prose fills in a bit. And then the force of bottled up thoughts, emotions, happenings rush at the reader with a fury; sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become pages, and in the most glorious way, the reader fears drowning under the weight of the words.
The story seems a simple one. An older man, Trond Sander, moves to a small cabin in Norway to be alone, to revisit the place that was a defining moment of his youth, to think.
Trond is a man, were he real, and were I to meet him, who would greet me pleasantly, offer me a chair, and then minutes could pass with not a word. He seems to embody the very definition of companionable silence. (Or probably, in his case, uncomfortable silence due to his strong desire to be left alone.) And yet, his thoughts and memories are so beautifully drawn that one can understand why he is happy to be left alone with them.
“I can still feel the same thing today when I see a hayrack in a photograph from a book, but all that is a thing of the past now. No-one makes hay this way any more in this part of the country; today there is one man alone on a tractor, and then the drying on the ground and the mechanical turner and wrapping machines and huge plastic white cubes of stinking silage. So the feeling of pleasure slips into the feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old.”
Several times Petterson lured me into a descriptive passage and then startled me with the finish. “When I sit here now, in the kitchen of the old house I have planned to make into a livable place in the years left to me, and my daughter has gone after a surprising visit and taken with her her voice and her cigarettes and the orange lights from her car down the road, and I look back to that time I see how each movement through the landscape took color from what came afterward and cannot be separated from it.”
At times there is a possibly sarcastic (?) element to Trond’s descriptions of events in his life, where he looks back at his younger self with eyes jaded with time.
“I pressed my nose against the glass and gazed into the cloud of dust slowly rising outside and hiding my father in a whirl of grey and brown, and I did everything you are supposed to do in a situation like that, in such a scene; I rose quickly and ran down the gangway between the seats to the last row and jumped up on it knees first and placed my hands on the window and stared up the road until the shop and the oak tree and my father had vanished round a bend, and all this is as if I had been thoroughly rehearsed in the film we have seen so often, where the fateful farewell is the crucial event and the lives of the protagonists are changed forever and take off in directions that are unexpected and not always nice, and the whole cinema audience knows just how it will turn out.”
This is balanced at times with quiet reverence for the experiences he has now. “Everything that was me lay taut and quivering just beneath my skin.”
This book, a reflection of a life lived although not completely understood, has flashes of pure luminosity.
“And it dawned on me that from that small patch of cobble stones I stood on there were lines going out in several directions, as in a precisely drawn diagram, with me standing in a circle in the middle, and today, more than fifty years later, I can close my eyes and clearly see those lines, like shining arrows, and if I did not see them quite as clearly that autumn day in Karlstad, I did know they were there, of that I am certain. And those lines were the different roads I could take, and having chosen one of them, the portcullis would come crashing down, and someone hoist the drawbridge up, and a chain reaction would be set in motion…”
Trond, and certainly not the reader, will ever get a complete account of what has happened in his life. And yet, there is enough. Enough joy, and pain, and beauty and despair…enough time, that when the story for the reader, and probably life for Trond, comes to an end, one does not feel shortchanged.
“If you were dead, you were dead, but in the fraction of a second just before; whether you realized then it was the end, and what that felt like. There was a narrow opening there, like a door barely ajar, that I pushed towards, because I wanted to get in, and there was a golden light in that crack that came from the sunlight on my eyelids , and then suddenly I slipped inside, and I was certain there for a little flash, and it did not frighten me at all, just made me sad and astonished at how quiet everything was.”
And the last line of this book, which I am desperate to include in this review but will not, this last line almost literally took my breath away with its force. After this last line, I set this book down carefully and with awe, and the story settled into place like that final log in the drift. And the river flows on.
The thing is, I'm having a really tough time adjusting. I don't remember how I did it before. And so, I've been slacking on everything. While I continue to read—I do work at a library, after all—my reviews keep pilling up. Seeing all the books I have yet to write something about is almost too stressful.
Apparently, I read this novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson sometime earlier this year. Of everything that stood out about the novel, here's what I remember: 1) the protagonist is an elderly gentleman looking back on his life in Norway; 2) the narrative is completely non-linear; 3) there are some gorgeous passages through this novel.
1) Trond is the nearly seventy -year-old man who is reflecting on his life. He takes his time getting around to all the details of his life (see 2), but does so with enthralling description (see 3). Some of Trond's reflections are quite tragic, and these are the stories that really make the plot interesting. Largely, Trond's narrative lacks much in the way of action.
2) I learned while reading Out Stealing Horses that Per Petterson is a writer who plans nothing. He begins a story without a plan and just writes. This is what we call writing by the seat of your pants. That explains why this narrative is all over the place, but it doesn't make it any less difficult to follow. Personally, I find the style makes for a less-than-pleasant read and that the final payoff on this particular novel was lacking.
3) Out Stealing Horses is a language-driven story. I realize that it has been translated from the Norwegian, so my judgment in regards to its mastery of language is based entirely on the English translation. The sentences in this novel are quite simple, as you'd expect from a character such as Trond, but that doesn't keep them from carrying a certain rhythm and depth that really stand out. Take, for example, this passage:
There was a smell of roasting meat and coffee in the air, and the smell of smoke, and timber and heather and sun-warmed stones and some special scent I had not noticed anywhere else than by this river, and I did not know what it was made of if not a combination of all that was there; a common denominator, a sum, and if I left and did not return I would never be able to experience it again.
For what it's worth, that's what I remember all this time later of Out Stealing Horses. This is far from a thorough or wonderfully written review, but I'm slacking. (If you think this is bad, you should see the state of the dishes in my kitchen right now.)
Trond’s only company is a dog named Lyra and an older man who lives in a cabin near the river not too far from Trond’s home. There in the desolate and beautiful wilderness and as he gets to know his neighbor, Trond begins to remember the summer of 1948 when he was fifteen years old and on the cusp of becoming a man. It is these memories which drive the novel forward - a slow unraveling of one fateful summer where everything changed. As Trond reveals the multiple layers of his past, he comes to grips with his present and begins to gain an understanding of the man he has become.
Out Stealing Horses is in part about a boy’s relationship with his father which is both touching and compelling. Trond’s father is a complex man with a mysterious past - a man who worked for the Norwegian underground during the Nazi occupation, and who has formed connections which the young Trond is just beginning to understand.
Petterson seamlessly moves between the past and present, gradually revealing each character and putting together the pieces of Trond’s life. This is a novel rich with emotion, one that explores pain, betrayal, identity, and loss. The language of the novel is evocative, simple and luminous.
I was mesmerized by this book. Seemingly a simple tale, it later reveals itself to be a complex study of grief and loss. This is not a book to be read quickly, but one which should be savored.
I brought Out Stealing Horses to Norway on vacation -- a perfect book for cafe reading in Oslo, I thought. But it began slowly, proceeded slowly, and I brought it back home having very unenthusiastically finished just the first two chapters in fits and starts. Uh-oh, classic signs of an agonizing slog ahead! Oslo itself plays a small but important role in the novel, so maybe that's why it was impossible for me to get into the book while there?
Several days after returning home from vacation, I started over, free of urban Norwegian distractions, and I fell into Petterson's storytelling rhythm. The book rarely picks up the pace -- it's a slow-burn story, meandering ponies instead of galloping thoroughbreds. If you don't care for that sort of thing, keep browsing. But once I got past the first 30 pages, I found the turns of phrase, the protagonist's a-ha observations, the various heartbreaking, life-shattering moments and the sad/beautiful conclusion all effective and entertaining despite (because of?) the glacial pacing. In fact, quite a lot happens over the course of 238 pages -- but just a few key moments play out quickly (thrillingly! breathlessly!), the way out-of-control events can overwhelm us, shaking us out of the comfort zone of an otherwise ordinary life. When those moments arrived in the story, I was riveted.
There are many worthy plot summaries elsewhere; I will toss out a few themes as a nod to the amateur reviewer's time-honored practice of helpfully boiling down complex works to just a few bullet points.
- It's a coming-of-age story: Trond, the 67-year-old central character, reviews his life, mainly returning to the summer he was 15. The events of that year defined him -- in ways he still struggles to understand decades later.
- It's a Norway story: Winter is coming (!) and a lack of preparation equals suffering, if not certain death. It's also a lone man's meditation on choosing to live alone in a remote area. But the threat of being snowed in -- cut off from civilization, food, and supplies -- is paramount.
- It's a World War II story: Norway's occupation during World War II is not the main theme or time period of the novel, but the characters' fates are absolutely affected by events and choices made during and immediately after the war.
- It's full of surprising appearances and disappearances. There are not a lot of characters in the book. But a fair number of friends, neighbors and family members die or leave -- or arrive -- when least expected.
- Yes, there are horses -- the same two horses, it turns out, at the beginning and the end of the novel. But a lot happens in between the two rides, thanks to artfully deployed flashbacks.
- Out stealing horses: "You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means." (In fact, nearly all the words mean something else, since I read the original Norwegian novel in an English translation.)
As with any rich work, this one is actually about pain and suffering. It is also about choices, and whether we truly make them or have them thrust upon us by others. Trond, the narrator, recalls a time in childhood when his father assigned him the task of picking thistles out of their yard. He complied, but stopped well before finishing the job because it hurt so much without gloves. His father reached out bare-handed and grabbed bunches of thistles without showing any sign of discomfort. After a while, he leaned over and gave his son what was clearly intended as valuable advice: "You decide when it hurts."
I definitely think this is partly attributable to reading it during a particularly busy and distracted few weeks. Days elapsed in between snatched readings, and I think I lost something from my reading experience as a result.
Essentially this is a tale of a man in his 60s who has taken himself off to a cabin in a semi-remote part of Norway to live out the rest of his days in peace and simplicity away from the emotional pressures of family and life in general. His nearest neighbour turns out to randomly be an acquaintance from his childhood, which stirs up many long stored away memories, some idyllic, others difficult.
I enjoyed the chapters returning to his childhood, but felt that a few potentially gripping story threads fell a little flat in the end. I appreciate that the author was deliberately wanting to leave some loose ends, but it felt a little like getting engrossed in a newspaper article only to find the concluding page is missing.
There were interesting emotions and feelings at play, but these were written in a male Men-Are-From-Mars-don't-dwell-on-your-emotions-too-much kind of way, and as a result I didn't empathise with the main protagonist as much as I could have done.
4 stars - worth a read, but by the end of the year I feel I'll have forgotten much about it.
~ 50 Top 10 Lists of 2007 - TIME