Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Safe from the Sea.
The centerpiece of Geye’s moving novel is the sinking of the Ragnarok, a Great Lakes ore boat, in 1967, with Olaf Torr one of only three survivors. Traveling to his father’s remote cabin in Minnesota, Torr’s estranged son, Noah, knows only that his father is dying. The relationship between father and son is as buried in emotional detritus as the ashes of Noah’s mother, ensconced somewhere in a junk-filled shed on the property.
Noah has his own problems, the most chronic and painful his wife’s inability to sustain a pregnancy. Noah and Natalie have gotten tangled in the clinical pursuit of fertility, their marriage strained by constant disappointment. With Nat nearing the fertile time of her cycle, it isn’t with any enthusiasm that Noah approaches his reunion with Olaf, nor are his memories fond and forgiving: “Here Noah stood, half an orphan for most of his life.” All the more surprising, then, when father and son bridge the years, the truth and the pride that has kept them apart.
Olaf is a man at the end of his journey, his body wracked with disease, the layers of his clothes threadbare as he shivers near the wood-burning stove, unable to stay warm or forget the icy night of the tragedy that returns to haunt his dreams, when all but Torr and two mates either burned or drowned. Relating the stark terror of that night to his son, Olaf is relieved of a burden, but it is Noah who is finally able to view his father through the lens of experience rather than the eyes of a disappointed child. As time grows shorter, death stalks the old man, yet the language of father and son is illuminated by forgiveness as each explores the past in the context of the unavoidable present.
Couched in the harrowing tale of a raging sea and an engine room consumed by flames, the stillness of Torr’s remote cabin becomes a confessional for a lifetime of misdeeds and a boy’s harsh judgment, Geye capturing the intimacy of this healing of the spirit. Nakedly primitive yet sufficient to facilitate reconciliation, the landscape lends authenticity to a father’s last request, the son able to listen.
The closing chapters of this novel are among the best I have read of a final dialog between parent and child, where the past is insignificant in the face of love and the utter finality of death. My great-grandfather perished in such a collision with nature’s fury on the Great Lakes, a story I will never know, so this beautifully rendered reconciliation was especially moving to read. Irrelevant to time and place, Geye writes with exquisite tenderness of the end of one life and the flowering of another, one generation’s gift to the next.