Unbridled Books ($15)
by Amy Henry
Despite their brief time together as mother and son, Thea and Odd Eide’s lives run nearly parallel courses. Odd (pronounced Owed) is orphaned soon after birth, while Thea was orphaned years before when she arrived in America from Norway. Both are fiercely independent, yet in the unenviable position of being subject to those who want to dominate and control them.
Even though they have similarities, the protagonists in Peter Geye’s second novel have distinct narratives. Thea, homeless and only able to speak Norwegian, is sent to a remote logging camp to work in the kitchen until she can find her own way. Here she finds that brutally hard work eases her grief and allows her to sleep without thoughts of the tragic loss of her family. In the bleak cold of the camp, routine numbs her feelings, and yet at times, the harsh life seems almost magical:
Each day after Thanksgiving the hours of daylight shriveled until it seemed there was hardly any purpose to the sun rising at all. And with each short day a definite restlessness settled into her. The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike. As their coats melted in the mess hall’s heat, they appeared to be vaporizing. Where once she had needed all her powers of concentration to perform her tasks, she now found herself with time to daydream. While plating their slices of pie she would puzzle over their evanescence as though it were a religious rite. Day after day they entered and took their seats and began their disappearance.
The accounts of Thea and her son alternate, with the author offering clues to what caused their separation in the first place. Early on, Odd makes an extreme effort to prove his bravery, one that both marks him and alters his outlook forever. After this point, recovering from a life-threatening wound, he’s apprenticed to an old fisherman, “the least garrulous man in a town full of reticent men,” who introduces him to the sea. From then on, Odd lives for fishing and smuggling, and even begins building his own boat, a symbolic gesture that carries meaning through the remainder of the story. It appears that in Odd’s case, for better or worse, his boat is himself—a way of transport that carries far more meaning than simply traversing distance.
Odd’s childhood under the care of Hosea Grimm, who had cared for his mother before her death, leaves him with a quasi-stepsister and a questionable father figure. In his character and in others, Geye’s novel throws out many questions: Does one need a model of proper behavior in order to be a decent human? Can you start fresh when your past is bitter and foul? Who can you trust when you have no one to aid you? But questions can distract too, and to focus too much on these is to miss the point that this is a damn fine story. Geye has perfected the push and pull of tension that keeps readers glued to the page, and at times, genuinely surprises with a feint and a turn in another direction. It’s also apparent that significant research went into the story, detailing early medical treatments, the art of ship-building, travel in the Lake Superior region, and even attitudes and expectations about birth and motherhood.
While The Lighthouse Road has only five main characters, several others have a necessary place in the story to show the level of community cohesion and the implicit danger of trusting the unknown. Nothing is simple, and each character has qualities and faults that challenge our perception. Nostalgia often paints the past as so much simpler than our lives, but the scenes from 1896 to 1921 challenge that simplicity, and show, if anything, that peril had more places to hide and few suspected its danger.