The Lighthouse Road
by Peter Geye
Unbridled Books, 2012
Hardcover, 304 pages
I: Odd Rex
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
III. First Thought on Home
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
V. Wolves and Men
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
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.
- Commercial herring fishermen still extract life from the lake, as seen in this recent photo essay by Minnesota Public Radio’s Dan Kraker.
- 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.
This review was originally published on Mill City Bibliophile.