By Per Petterson
Out Stealing Horses , a seemingly simple story gains momentum as the layers of the past are revealed or remembered by Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who had recently lost his wife. Trond seeks to allay his feeling of loneliness by moving from Oslo to a rural community where he can enjoy solitude with his dog. His days will be filled with the details inherent in fixing up a cabin in need of repairs.
Solitude isn’t always quiet and the past enters into both his nighttime and daytime hours. His nearest neighbor Lars is someone he knew when as a fifteen year old he had spent the summer with his father. That summer, 1948, would leave indelible marks.
Lars is a surviving twin. The summer of 1948 he was ten and one day he accidentally shot his brother when he picked up a loaded rifle his older brother Jon had left leaning against a door. Jon had been out hunting and forgot to remove the cartridges from his rifle. Trond and Jon had been friends. After the accident Jon leaves home and eventually goes out to sea.
This mirroring of two appears a number of times in the book. Trond’s mother has twin brothers; one returns home from the war and one was shot by the Gestapo. The title of the story also has two references. Jon and Trond refer to the time they entered a neighbor’s pasture and rode two of his horses as a day to go Out Stealing Horses. That phrase was also the password in the Norwegian resistance.
Jon and Trond’s fathers both vie for Jon’s mother. And there’s the life that Trond knows nothing about during the war years when Trond’s father is involved with the resistance and disappears for long periods of time.
In 1948 Trond spends the summer with his father — a summer both magical and staggering emotionally. He sees his father and Jon’s mother kissing. A friend of his father tells him about his father’s involvement in the resistance as well as the involvement of Jon’s mother with the resistance movement.
The story of the occupation and the resistance is unfurled slowly, but carefully and with a foreboding of what will be ahead.
At the end of the summer Trond’s father, a father who he dearly loved takes him to the train station and tells him that he will follow. It’s an emotional scene and one that the fifteen year old will bear with him for his entire life. Late autumn his father writes to his mother telling her that he will not be returning home. He has left money in a Swedish bank for his family. This is the money earned from felling timber that summer and sending it downstream into Sweden.
Trond and his mother leave for Sweden to claim the money, which ends up being a paltry sum. Obviously some of the timber never made it downstream. Her life changes and she loses whatever lightness she possessed.
Lars tells Trond that he eventually inherited the farm when he was twenty-four, but lost it when his brother Jon returned from his sea journeys and as the oldest son claimed the land. At that point Lars left home and had not seen either his mother or Jon since that day. Again we have a leaving.
Trond does not ask Lars if his father had lived with his mother. He spares Lars a response.
The cruelty of the Nazis is also seen in Jon’s cruelty when as a young man he destroys a bird’s nest and the eggs in the nest. It’s almost a fore shadow of what is to come.
Seamlessly woven into the story are the activities of the resistance throughout the war years. Each incident is a precursor of the next incident.
At the end of the book Trond’s daughter Ellen tracks him down and pays him an unexpected visit. It is this visit that allows change to enter his life.
I found the book haunting and powerful. It took me to places within the story and to places in my own past.
Scandinavian Book Challenge