I: Odd Rex
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (which I’ve massacred through summary) came to mind while reading The Lighthouse Road, Peter Geye’s newly published novel of northern Minnesota. Here, the biggest forces of fate have nothing to do with men or gods. Instead, at these northern latitudes, the seasons dictate our lives. They rule what we eat, what we wear, what we do. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending nets, for blueberries and for root vegetables, for snowshoes and canoes.
Odd Thiede, the orphaned protagonist forever searching for shelter from the storm, is subject to a profoundly Earth-bound destiny. His fate is specifically the harsh seasons of Lake Superior’s North Shore – not the gods’ will but the natural world’s ambivalence, the relentless cycles of the Earth. To take your boat out for its maiden voyage on the big lake during November (the month of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) is not to challenge the gods but to merely gamble your own life, weighing the chance of a storm against the chance for a future and a family. The odds of this bet are not made by any bookie, but by the wind and the water and love. It is not an affront to god, but to one’s own instinct for self-preservation.
II. Water and Time
In the scale of human time, though, and especially European immigrant time, the North Shore has changed dramatically over the intervening hundred years. We go there now for weddings and romantic weekends, massages and good restaurants. We also go for that feeling of being between two wildernesses, one of vast open water and one of deep woods and rushing rivers. It is an escape – a place to get to, not to get away from. If the characters of Geye’s North Shore feel at home, it is only because they have nowhere else to go.
III. First Thought on Home
There is a feeling of security and comfort in that country, despite its dangerous beauty. But in Lighthouse, the northwoods are unflinchingly hostile, if impartial – a sleepy bear in her den, slapping away a pestering boy and scarring him while she slumbers. In a little village at the edge of the wilderness, the land’s ambivalence is matched only by the untrustworthy company Odd must depend on for survival.
Frontier stories inevitably ask the question of human nature – not necessarily if we are inherently good or evil, but if we are most driven by our individual greed or our compassion for others. Are we our brother’s keeper? Or are we only meant to extract a living from the land, of timber or bootlegged liquor, or forbidden love?
The challenge in Lighthouse is not about what the characters give, but what they manage to take from their surroundings: love and food and life. Only it is neither compassion nor greed which motivates them, but mere survival.
IV. Rally Around the Family
This fall has been a blizzard in its own right for my wife and I, and our little baby daughter, Annika. She has been teething or sick or both and none of us have been getting enough sleep. Our family and friends have given generously of their time and love. It has kept us going. I think often of single parents raising children alone, and I am simply grateful for the crowd of love around us. So I had to imagine, as I was reading the story of Thea’s labor and delivery, the lonesomeness of giving birth far from your family or anyone who loves you. The young immigrant woman traveled by three boats and a train from her native land, only to arrive on shores almost identical to those she left. Not finding what she came for, her fate is that of many of our immigrant ancestors who washed against America’s shores, often crashing on the rocks. Thea’s end drives Odd’s life: to look for love and find a mother, to seek a father, and find a master.
V. Wolves and Men
The lumberjacks who spend the winter deep in the woods, harvesting its pine, dodge death daily from falling trees, saws, frostbite, runaway wagons, and countless other maladies. But it is when a pack of wolves seems to have encircled their logging camp that they grow truly scared. The camp enlists two dogs, massive beasts of Russian lineage, for protection:
In the two weeks since the Ovcharkas had arrived there had been no wolf song. Groups of men visited the dogs each night after supper, offering busted ax handles in lieu of rawhide, bringing in their pockets crusts of bread and hunks of meat to reward the dogs… If that winter would not relent, if the men suffered their frozen flesh and injured limbs, they were at least more calm in their few hours of leisure each evening, and certainly more comfortable in their slumber.
As far as the lumberjacks are concerned, the wolves are the true menace, rather than the mere fact of working and living in this land. (Like humans always have, and apparently always will, they ignore the fact that wolves do not attack us.) One man blames the wolves for driving him to rape. This excuse appalls the law and the reader both, and leads one to think that when humans and the land are enemies, so too are we enemy to each other.
VI. Second Thought on Home
Geye seems to have spent as much time researching the setting as the era. And he provides a passable explanation in the MinnPost interview, stating that his longing for the landscape made it come alive in his imagination. And of course, imagination is a novelist’s fuel. There is no town of Gunflint, though obviously it stands in for Grand Marais, and there is no Burnt Wood River, though its name is merely the English translation of the Bois Brule River, located on Lake Superior’s South Shore but sharing part of its name with the North Shore’s Brule River.
Eventually, one comes to accept Lighthouse as a story in which the setting is crafted much the same way as the people – Geye says he was inspired to write it based on a single photo of a Norwegian woman working at a lumber camp in a book of northern Minnesota images. Should a different photo have caught his eye, I might have read an entirely different novel, though probably still set on the North Shore of Geye’s dreams.
VII. The End
He couldn’t help thinking, lying there, tired beyond all reason, that it was the season of mending nets, of building new fish boxes, of darning socks and patching his oilskin pants. It was the season for sleeping in past sunup, for long lunch hours at the Traveler’s Hotel. It was the season for running traplines with Danny and fishing steelhead on the shore ice. It was not the season for lying hungover in hotel beds fit for governors.
Defying fate and the season earns Odd a chance to leave the only home he has ever known – escaping a place that had come to feel like a prison. (Think Truman Burbank in The Truman Show.) It leads him to a father figure, and a future, yet home eventually draws him back, once more by way of the lake. Anticlimactic, but simply fate fulfilled – a mirroring of the seasonal progression. And the seasonal progression mirrors life. Birth, growth, death. Always returning. Each winter a reminder of our mortality.
The trick with fate, as Oedipus and Odd both learned, is not to fight it – whether divined by god or nature. We must know the sun and the wind, wolves and men, and be at home in our corner of the world. I was surprised when we got a foot of snow in early December. I have given up on winter this last decade, coming to expect gray and dry, not bright and soft. But the old season returned and it was good to admire my freshly-shoveled driveway, and to turn my attention to cross-country skis, and books.
Peter Geye will read at The University Club in St. Paul on Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the “Minnesota Reading by Writing” series, hosted by Carol Connolly. More information available here.
1: Commercial herring fishermen still extract life from the lake, as seen in this recent photo essay by Minnesota Public Radio’s Dan Kraker.
2: It might not be the fictional fishing village of Gunflint, but you’ve never seen Grand Marais’s harbor like in this
video made using a remote-controlled helicopter.
We welcome letters on this or any other topic at email@example.com
Photos by Michael O’Laughlin and Patrick Nathan.