Posts Tagged ‘Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson’

I have been thinking about Lars and Trond, the neighbors in Out Stealing Horses. Do we get to see enough of their relationship to think about what might happen later, after the book ends? Maybe.  Here is what I think is so:

The two have common history rooted in the same place.

They enjoy the physical work of life.

They have lost a huge part of that they once thought their lives included: a father for Trond, a farm for Lars.

Neither went back.

They are over sixty and live within sight of each other.

I think this is a recipe for friendship, at least I would like to think so. Lars seems, to me and to Trond, like a decent fellow, careful, deliberate, thoughtful.

Each could use the other’s companionship even though neither moved there to be near. So, each could use the other’s forbearance too. On that, I think, they could count. I can see them doing some fishing together, working projects that are too hard for one man, keeping an eye out for each other. Cooking for two might be something Trond is willing to do, maybe even twice a week and on special occasions.

Well, we don’t get to see much of that. So, I wonder, what is Lars doing in that story? He intensifies Trond’s loss of a father. Yes, it is a greater loss when your dad fathers another man’s son even if just for a while. It raises our curiosity about the father’s life after Trond returns to Oslo.  If Jon had returned to find Trond’s father still there (his mother was, we know), I don’t think it would make sense for him to demand the farm. Are we, then, to think that he had died? Left? Or was he just living up stream still? (In that case, would he have been a father to Lars? Lars calls him “my stepfather” during the account of the dog shooting). I am not sure which is most likely.  We don’t really have to know.

But Lars is doing something else here. If it were just Trond who was suffering a loss – even though he was the boy in the golden trousers and lived a full live, albeit not without tragedy – alone, the story would be about an individual. More about him, less about us.

But there Lars is. He lived a life parallel to Trond in loss and suffering. He was booted out, young. He did not return. He also lost a father and, like Trond, a sibling (twice).  This makes the book more a tale of two men whose lives intertwined briefly but significantly.

If this is so, would Trond be the Sydney Carton who loses a father that another man might have one? The allusion strengthens the argument that Lars’ presence adds a universal scope to the theme. We have to see life as loss. How much it hurts will be up to us.



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.”





I taught English for seventeen years. That is not a confession.  One thing we worked on when I taught seniors was irony.  I suppose seniors in high school are ripe for it since they are all focused on leaving the place that they most do not want to leave.

We rehearsed the normal definitions of the concept, dividing them into verbal, situational and dramatic irony.  All seniors love Oedipus the King. The ironies of all kinds are rife (let me paraphrase here): Oedipus – “I am going to hunt down the king’s murderer and seek vengeance;”  Oedipus, again – “I left my father and mother to avoid killing one and marrying the other;” the Audience, Greek or modern – “OMG, don’t you see? You are the culprit.” And on and on and on.

The ironic would have gone the way of metonymy if life itself were not so full of it.  And if a book is as full of ironies, chances are that it is a fair picture of life.  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is both full of irony and truth about living and observing life.  It is widely agreed that it meets the test. The truth that it would NOT make a good read for seniors anxious to live life rather than examine it is all to its credit. Besides, the tripartite definition of the concept is far too clumsy to describe what goes on in Petterson’s book.

Start with the title, Out Stealing Horses. It is a password of sorts, used during the resistance to Nazi occupation in the war. As such, it is both symbolic and ironic. It symbolizes the danger involved – the consequence is well-known, even to Jon and Trond – and the verbal irony is clear.  No, in neither instance, the war or the episode with Barkald’s horses, was stealing involved. It is further ironic in the way Jon uses it.  He uses the phrase literally, but at the same time we know – at least later on – that he used it to cover a far more serious happening of his life, one so serious that only a password with a history could convey enough significance.  When Trond tells his father that he and Jon were “out stealing horses” his father’s reaction is ironic.  Immediately, he might think his cover has been blown, that his son knows a truth that he has not revealed, one that he may not yet know himself. There are secrets here, just as in Oedipus, that when revealed will render life long and life changing irony. Some of it may become clear when Trond hears the same words from Franz as the World War II stories of his father are passed along.

An irony that is more pronounced at the time it is read is Trond’s assertion, “I trusted my father.” When I read these words, I flushed with gratitude that there were fathers who could be trusted.  Mine could not. But within a second, the thought came, “If he has to say it so flatly, it will turn out not to be true.” More succinctly, “Fat chance.”  No father can be trusted, at least no more fully than any man, and should not be trusted in the way a young son does. The boy must say it if we are to know he believes it. If a grown man were to say it, we would be immediately convinced he was eulogizing or outright lying. Of course, one beauty of the narrative is that the reader gets to know as does the boy, little by little, what the grown-old narrator has already found out. The trust of boys, of sons carries its own risks.

I am certainly not going to catalog each irony that appears in Out Stealing Horses but permit me one more, so emotionally evocative that it is perhaps the best example of how very good Petterson can be, and that is very, very good: Trond is leaving the village by the river where he spent the summer with his father. He will return to Oslo now.  The irony is verbal and dramatic. It is also neither of those.  Verbal irony unfolds when the reader hears a character say something he clearly believes is true but is in fact opposed to what is known to be so.  In this section, Trond is forced to say he understands and that it is OK. But he tells us he is not sure he understands and that it is definitely not OK.  The reader knows that Trond does not understand and easily agrees that it is not OK.  The reader also knows that it is less OK than even that, thus, dramatic irony.  This scene would work without ironic twists, but it would then only be sentimental, something the older Trond guards against.  As it is, the reader sees a father bidding his son farewell, not for a week or two nor for a month or two, but for much, much longer than that.  We are aghast – we scream out at Oedipus, “It’s is you; you are your father’s killer.” – we cannot understand, like Trond, how a man, even a man who barehanded pulls up nettles, can do this without tearing out his own eyes.

I am not very experienced, but you don’t have to get your nose bloodied very often to learn to keep it off someone’s fist either.

One thing I have learned is that what they say about writing not being easy is not what you might think.  Most people think about having to sit before a blank page and to think up things to say.  I suppose everyone is different from the other, but that view has not been my reality. More likely, for me, at least, it is what can I get away with and how can I charm my way out of this mess I’ve got myself into.

Per Petterson has done both.  He certainly got away with one when his narrator in Out Stealing Horses said “if this had been in a novel it would just have been irritating.” Well, it was a cheeky way to get around the all to obvious irony of Trond retiring to the woods only to live next to the boy who fifty years before had taken a place by Trond’s own father’s side.  I thought it worked the first time I read it. I still think it works.  I have to smile each time I think about it.

I wonder, though, if Trond’s disclaimer on the story of Odd’s death is as successful.  First, it comes near the end of that story, after the reader – worse if it is a second or third time reader – has started to think or has already been thinking, “Hey, how does he know all this?” Even when it is Trond’s father doing the telling it is difficult not to doubt some of the detail that no one, outside of either Lars or Jon when either was alone, could have known.  Well, Petterson got away with this one, too.  The first time.  But on my second read through the book, looking for evidence of how he put it together, well, I had a harder time buying it.  The disclaimer helped, allowed room for Trond’s ample imagination and sensitivity to play onto that subject of Jon and Lars and all, but it did not fully remove the suspicion that this was a difficulty that Petterson gambled on and lost a bit.

Well, there is plenty of good in this part of the book.  The story of Jon and his gun is common.  But it rang less true than I would want for two reasons.  One, I had not seen Jon in a domestic role prior to his forgetting to tend to his brothers as he had agreed.  He went hare hunting. But he didn’t seem like a boy who didn’t plan ahead. He seemed a magical boy, accomplished, daring, and smart. But domestic? Not too much. So, I would have felt better if that negligence had been better prepared for.  It seemed too convenient – like Faulkner’s Harry Wilbourne who finds $1,200 in a garbage can – for Jon to make one mistake, and only one.  The second part is a small complaint.  Why was Jon’s father in the woods? Didn’t he have to be going to Innbygd right away? What, did he need the shock of the killing to remind him to go?

The retelling of this sad story is a tough and a difficult to write part of the book: there is a horde of information given none by eye witnesses. Those who were there weren’t talking.  I would that it worked as smoothly as the rest. I suppose also that Jon had to be got rid of at least for a time.  And his father too.  Neither disappeared in very acceptable ways.  And when Jon comes back? What and whom did he find? That part, I have yet to reread.  We will see about

Maybe it’s because I am experiencing something I did not understand when I was ten and my mother was forty-two.

There she was again, sitting in her chair.  She hadn’t started to use the throw she knit yet. That came later, and she sure wasn’t using the pansy- patterned throw I bought for her years after I move out and on, the one I now spread across my legs when I am reading at night and am too lazy to climb in bed. She was sitting there again as I was bouncing around the living room looking for excitement.

“Why are you always sitting so much?” I asked.

She gave me her best, most exasperated look and laughed. (She spared me my father’s famous and oft-repeated wisdom, “You’ll find out”).

“I’m pooped. I’m tired.”She laughed again. I guess I wasn’t there all day for the cleaning, laundry, cooking three meals and getting up an hour ahead of every body else and finally turning out the lights and turning down the thermostat. In between, she held a full-time job at the hospital kitchen. Later, I found out she deserved to sit down and put her feet up.

Well, I did find out, Dad. I know the kind of tired she felt.  It doesn’t hurt so much. It just won’t go away. You can’t complain about it so much and you know that the alternative is downright out of the question. What a pain it is to grow old.

But pain is not confined to the old.  Thank heaven for that. But the old have a deeper appreciation for pain and spend less time trying to avoid it. Now whether that is true or not Per Petterson in Out Stealing Horses certainly investigates pain, and since his narrator is both a 15 and a 67-year-old throughout the book, we get to see pain of the young and the old.  The fact that it is the same person suffering these pains tells us something about how life, and suffering, changes us and changes our view of ourselves and our lives.

Okay, let’s start with the centerpiece of the pain theme.  Trond avoids cutting the nettles. Questioned, he tells his father, “It will hurt,” after which dad pulls them up one after another with his bare hands. Now don’t get the idea that I am still whimpering after being stung years ago working on the grounds-crew at the university. But, hey, Trond was right. Nettle stings hurt. They really hurt. Dad, though, had, as we find out, suffered much deeper pain: the pain of his homeland being overrun by brutal brigands, the pain of making wrong choices, the hurt of loss even before it really became loss.  The man had lived.  He tells his son, “You decide yourself when it will hurt.”

I am not sure that this means we dismiss the pain and go on, or if you initiate painful actions only when you are sure you must, or that you simply appreciate the pain for what it is: proof that you are alive. I has to be that this is a lesson father teaches son, and Trond could never forget a scene like that. So, what do we find him doing later on?

Out stealing horses with Jon,  fifteen-year-old Trond crunches his balls jumping from a tree to a horse. Most boys know how that feels since there is no end of other boys trying to kick them there, usually with eventual success. The result as it was with Trond is direct vomiting.  Then, Trond is thrown from the horse across a barbed wire fence slashing his arm, landing hard and believing he is paralyzed. Not long afterward he is confronted with the psychic pains of loss as his summer friend who minutes before had seemed as he normally was, a wild and wonderful boy, seems to go insane. Immediately following, Trond is attacked by pseudo-asthma and then by a drenching, chilling thunderstorm. Now that’s painful. (Who called this a quiet novel?)

How does the old Trond respond to pain.  First, he is philosophical about it: “I have been lucky, I say to myself. I can go out to a neighbour in the night when he is searching for his dog, and it will take me only a couple of days and I will be OK again.”  Yes, even though he needs his sleep which will be disturbed, Trond considers himself lucky.  The irony of this passage was clear to me only at the end of the book, maybe even beyond that. In any case,  the old narrator is watchful if not careful of his body, especially his back, and has to plan his activities to avoid exhaustion which does overtake him.  I must say, both the young and old Trond suffer weak stomachs.  That much did not change.

Pain and injury – Trond nearly disables himself jumping out of his bunk – play major roles in the book.  But it is the special way that Petterson employs them, Trond’s approach to them, the tools he uses to manage them, especially when old, that bond the father with the son and the young narrator with the older one.  Among the many skills his father taught him, although he let his son explore and make his own mistakes frequently, handling the pain of life proves to be one useful and important.  Even the boy with the golden trousers, the lucky devil in life, Trond needed this skill. I wonder just how much forethought  his father, who was a noted planner, gave to imparting that lesson. It would be most important were Father not be there to continue the training.