The remarkable novel Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson opens with an image of titmice banging into the window of the narrator’s remote cabin home and falling dizzily into the evening snow. Warm inside, the aging Trond Sander remarks, “I don’t know what they want that I have.” This proximity to a wayward nature that expects something of us, we know not what, and where collisions and deaths are ever in the wind is a constant in Petterson’s fiction. There is a great deal of weather in his stories and it is always beautiful and menacing.
Fear is the most common emotion; life is dangerous and accidents happen. Practical competence with tools, animals, guns, and vehicles is much admired. Meticulous descriptions explain how to use a chainsaw so you won’t get hurt, how to prepare a home against the winter, how to stack logs on a sloping river bank, how to save a drowning man.
In relationships what matters is trust. If you can’t feel safe with someone, far better to be alone. Sex may be exciting, but it aligns itself with the elements as potentially catastrophic. Both Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia are essentially about betrayals of trust. In both novels a young person on the brink of adulthood loses, in melodramatic circumstances, the one relationship that made it possible to face an inclement world with confidence. Narrated in hindsight by elderly survivors, the novels hint at a crippled adult life only half-lived in constant apprehension and prolonged mourning. A quiet stoicism holds panic and despair at bay.
In Out Stealing Horses, the discovery that a near neighbor, Lars Haug, is a childhood acquaintance compels Trond Sander to recall the last summer he spent with his father fifty years before. The two had gone away to a remote cabin by a river on the Swedish border (such places are frequent in Petterson’s work) where the father enlists the boy’s help to cut down an area of forest he has bought in order to sell the timber downstream. Other helpers are Lars’s mother and father.
The fifteen-year-old Trond finds himself deeply attracted to Lars’s mother, then sees his father watching her too. Their mutual awareness of this shared attraction deepens an already close father–son relationship. It is the boy’s first sexual arousal. Then he discovers that his father and the friend’s mother are already lovers; during the war the two worked together in the anti-Nazi Resistance. When the logs have been cut and sent downriver, the father disappears and the boy realizes that the money from the log sale was intended to pay off the family—himself, his mother, and his sister—whom his father is abandoning forever. The whole summer that had seemed so idyllic was actually a carefully planned betrayal. Unfortunately, the money will amount to very little because in his eagerness to be free …