For those acquainted with Geye’s work, this cast of characters is not unfamiliar: generations that have inhabited the north wilderness that surrounds Gunflint, Minnesota, hardy folk with deep memories and long-held secrets. It’s a harsh, beautiful country, demanding of those who elect to abide there and tangled with the stories of ancestors. Geye is fully conversant with his cast of characters and their manner of living, almost exotic in its distance from city cacophony and the boom of industry.
Times passes differently in such a place, or perhaps it is the manner in which a man’s son and his late-age lover come together to share stories writ over a lifetime. Harry Eide has left his bed, where dementia threatens to erase the memories that have made a hard life bearable.
He has headed back to the wilderness, most likely lost, though search parties have not yet given up their futile efforts. Eide’s son, Gus, speaks about his father to Berit Lovig, an elderly woman who has loved Harry since she was sixteen, waiting patiently for the only man she has ever wanted. Gradually they share ragged pieces of the past, each making peace with the fact that neither will see Harry again.
Having lived near Harry and his family for so long, Berit is privy to the ongoing dramas, enmities, betrayals, and distance between the family members when too much time passes without acknowledgment, let alone forgiveness. As Gus recounts the pivotal days in 1963 when he went wintering with his father
as a boy on the cusp of manhood, Berit hears a man unburden himself of a painful past, a complicated and tragic season that would pit father and son against each other but leave them intact, if scarred: “What boy doesn’t wait his whole childhood to walk alongside his father on equal terms?”
While Berit carries the troubled Harry’s true heart, it is the wilderness tale that shimmers with ice, threat, danger, and the profound experience of man at nature’s mercy: “What mess of bent and secret lives was leading us into this? How much anger and grief?” The trek to the interior becomes another world, Harry following a series of maps made by earlier voyagers he has saved for years, the rhythms of their ancient songs accompanying their labors. Harry has fled with Gus, unable to deal with his life at home for a time. At home there is chaos; here, peace and order.
Just as there are two protagonists in the novel--replete with a full panorama of relatives and complications common to the entrenched loyalties and hardships of such a place--there are two facets to the unfolding world of the enigmatic Harry Eide. The events that take place during those wintering days are pivotal to the relationship of father and son and to Gus’s understanding of manhood, fatherhood, and the consequences of decisions. Decisions that mean the difference between life and death, whether man vs. nature, man vs. animal, or man vs. man, perhaps the most brutal and devious enemy of all. Ultimately balance is achieved, nature shrugging off human hubris
and leaving the survivors to endure. The other element is an unusual love story, begun in adolescence and savored in the waning years of life. Both are captured beautifully by a writer of sensitivity, compassion and great respect for the environment that has shaped his work--storytelling that is, in fact, literature.