When a recent edition of The New York Times ran a review of a movie based on Per Petterson’s novel “Out Stealing Horses,” it caught my attention. I wondered how a book as introspective and “quiet” as this novel might be transferred to the screen.
The fundamental question for the main character of the novel, Trond, is “whether (he) shall turn out to be the hero of (his) own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else.” Furthermore, will he have the courage to answer the query? Do we dare, asks Petterson, engage in life to the extent such answers demand?
Trond and his father are spending a summer during World War II at a house on a river close to the Swedish border, and his father is involved in aiding Norwegians pursued by Nazis in their flights to Sweden. The father of Trond’s best friend, Jon, is not. He makes the choice not to choose as he leaves one refugee’s footprint from his barn undisturbed for a local German soldier to discover. That, in turn, opens the way to Sweden for Jon’s wife and Trond’s father, both of whom have facilitated the aborted flight.
Four years later, in 1948, we learn that the “desolate howl” of Jon’s father at everything seeming “beyond hope” signals his defeat. He is taken to a hospital in Innbygda from where “he never came back.” Is that the price, we wonder, for refusing to take sides? Trond’s father does. He leaves his family after depositing 250 Swedish kroner for them to collect.
The action of the novel moves back and forth between past and present. Just before moving to his newly acquired cabin, Trond has lost his wife in a car accident and has decided to go live in a house similar to the one he and his father inhabited that fatal summer. “I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time with clear thinking and good tools … solve the challenges … with beginnings and ends to them that I can foresee, and then be tired in the evenings, but not exhausted, and wake up all rested in the morning.” He knows he can do it. After all, he has been “the boy with the golden trousers,” but he thinks it would be nice to finally come to rest or even to re-engage in society as he was engaged in the summer of 1948, painful though that was.
Like his father, Trond chooses to stare life and death in the face in the image of a lynx — traditional symbol of darkness and death — which no one else has seen. To further engage in living and people, he considers investing in a telephone. Though even with a telephone, he, and we, must realize that we are forever stuck with “our own reflection in the glass.”
Trond’s discovery that his only neighbor is Lars, the brother of his old friend Jon, triggers the problem of bridging the gap between our present and past selves, which is fundamental to the development of “Out Stealing Horses.” Trond is candid about the emotional costs of such bridge building. He gains pleasure from looking at a “hayrack in a photograph in a book” and ponders the process of using it. He realizes, however, that it is a thing of the past and so “the feeling of pleasure slips into the feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago,” and he experiences a sudden sensation of feeling old. Corralling time, we learn, is as potentially hurtful as corralling the self.
Try as he may to “live one day at a time,” his meeting with Lars forces him to revisit the summer that changed his world and changed him, the summer he realized that what his father had said as they departed at the bus stop for Trond to go back to school and his mother’s house was an edict he must take to heart: “That is life. … You have to take it and remember to think afterwards and not forget and never grow bitter.”
To return, then, to my opening statement about “Out Stealing Horses” having been made into a movie: Will it be as good as the novel? Are we ready to watch? Those of you who have streaming services have that choice.
• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.