Give Dad a break: a postscript on irony.


I reread Out Stealing Horses for some tutelage, to discover more of what made it so good, why it moved me.  Mostly, during the second reading, it just blew me away again. Instead of taking it apart to inspect it, the story was invading me, yet again, and carrying me down its river to foreign parts. I suppose that is what wonderful writing does.

I said I wasn’t going to catalog the instances of irony in the book, but I just have to add one more:

Dad and Trond are out riding horses.  It is their last outing together (perhaps for the summer, perhaps forever). For Trond it is the chance to be with his father, to see him in the glow of the embers of their campfire. What the trip is for the father is a little more complicated.  He is tracking his lumber shipment which we know went down a low level river to the Swedish sawmill.  If the lumber makes it down river, father’s plan for his future will work.  If it doesn’t, well, he might complete his plan anyway, but it seems much less certain.  Why would he otherwise be so tense about it?

The man has scruples that demand or at least lead him to do the right thing if it can be done. (I am dancing around here surpressing “spoilers” but if you have finished the book – which means you have started it – you will likely recognize clearly what I mean.  If you haven’t finished the book – which means you don’t have a copy yet – you should get an inkling about this irony). In any case, they come upon a huge log jam.  If they are able to release the jam, father will begin a new life; if the jam holds, it is more likely that father will return to Oslo to his, and Trond’s, family life.

The irony? Trond leaps at the chance to break the jam. He plies the water and tangled tree trunks like a skilled lumberjack and works a solution – what, to the jam, to the father’s dilemma, to living life? – to the problem.  Will it work? If it does, he loses his father, though he does not know it. If it does not, he fails in front of dad and gains, perhaps, a forever unhappy parent. This ironic knot is tied tighter than the logs are jammed into the rocks in the middle of the river, and despite the fact that the book continues into Part III, this is really the climax of the story, the supreme irony.

After reading through twice, I still wonder how the reader, or Trond, can forgive what has to happen in this story.  How can a father even think of leaving a son he so clearly loves? How can a son continue on if he is abandoned by that father? And why?

I suppose the answers are found in the imprints of war, in the accidents of love, in the strength of filial affection. The antidote to the pain of any life is the resonance of father’s wisdom gained by careful thought and experience: “We decide for ourselves when it will hurt.”

tj

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