Fate and the Lake: Seven Ideas about “The Lighthouse Road”

The Lighthouse Road
by Peter Geye
Unbridled Books, 2012
Hardcover, 304 pages

I: Odd Rex

Fate and free will have been debated since the ancient Greeks believed that oracles, channeling the gods, could foretell our lives. Oedipus would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, no matter the actions of lowly humans. His parents heard the news and abandoned the child to die, but Oedipus clawed his way back. His exertions to avoid his own fate – and those of his parents – led him directly to that which the oracle promised.

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

Anyone who has watched the waves beat against the rocky shore of Lake Superior knows the greatest lesson the lake has to teach is the power of time. Only eons of conflict between water and wind and rock could have carved the ragged and beautiful shoreline. On this vast geologic timescale – the hundreds of millions of years – that defines the landscape of Lake Superior, the century that separates The Lighthouse Road from today is inconsequential. That same rock was beaten by the water then as today.

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

For all the civilization that has come to Lake Superior in modern times, the wilderness still beckons today, a little beleaguered and lonesome, ringed by roads and cell towers, but still offering the chance to get lost, to float in absolute silence along an old canoe trail. Many of us say we feel at home in the great pine-studded, rock-strewn, watery wilderness. It is the very icon of Minnesota – the land of sky blue waters, with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness alone containing 1,000 of our state’s famed 10,000 lakes.

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

When the book opens in November 1896, a young woman named Thea Eide is going into labor at a remote logging camp in northern Minnesota. She is alone and unprepared, and – not surprisingly – a blizzard is blowing. A Norwegian immigrant, Thea is surrounded in the wilderness by lumberjacks and deep woods. Paralyzed by fear of trying to give birth and raise a child in this world, she does nothing to plan for the baby’s arrival. But of course its birth is destined from the dark moment of its conception.

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

This year, Minnesota plunged headlong into our state’s first wolf-hunting season in decades, continuing a conflict that has waxed and waned since the beginning of time, with periods of war and peace, driven by a fear that was buried deep in the human psyche long before we possessed fire or language. Wolves play a menacing role in the book, mirroring the worst of man’s nature in a pivotal scene and otherwise representing the deep, dark woods in which the novel is set. There are the storms of the lake on one edge of this story, the teeth of wolves on the other, and a little sliver of people, just as dangerous, in between.

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 is a born-and-raised Minneapolis boy, and for all of us 612-ers, the North Shore is a place of some mythical draw. In a recent interview with Amy Goetzman in MinnPost, Geye said his frequent visits to Lake Superior while growing up left him in “awe” of the shore and the wilderness inland. Awe can cloud a writer’s work – how do you write authentically about the experience of struggling through life in such a place when your primary experience is that of a wide-eyed tourist? In this way, Lighthouse challenged my closely-held values on place and home. We are accustomed to the concept of historical fiction and accept that a story can accurately represent life during a specific time period. But can we write accurately about a place we know only as a visitor?

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.


Northern Notes

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
made using a remote-controlled helicopter.

We welcome letters on this or any other topic at letters@millcitybibliophile.com

Photos by Michael O’Laughlin and Patrick Nathan.

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