Out Stealing Horses, we discover, is a euphemism. First, for boys sneaking an unauthorized joy ride on a neighbor’s steeds. Second, for civilians running information and materiel across German lines during WWII between Norway (where the book is set) and Sweden. The narrator/protagonist, Trond Sander, is a 67-year-old retiree who has stripped himself down to essentials. He sold a business, purchased a rundown rural property which he plans to fix up himself, little by little. He owns a car (old), a few tools, a dog, a wood stove, an electric kettle, and no telephone. Life has taken a great deal from him, and he plans to live out his final years in peaceful isolation. Cut off even from a sympathetic family. A daughter tracks him down, appears affectionate and caring, but he’s separated (himself?) off from his feelings and finds it impossible to respond. (I’d quibble with Petterson about his character’s age, by the way. He acts more like a 77-year old to me in both body and spirit.)
At any rate, the past intrudes into the bucolic tranquility in the form of neighbor he hasn’t seen since they were both boys over fifty years past. The memories flood in, and we move alternately between Sander’s bleak present and his occasionally colorful adolescence.
The tone of the Per Petterson’s narration is surprisingly low-key considering the nature and magnitude of some of the violence in the book–A bridge blown, a Nazi machine gunning, a toddler’s shooting. But since we’re looking at it from the mind of a physically impaired and emotionally exhausted elder, it’s in retrospect not that surprising. The overall effect is one of pleasant sadness, which is appropriate, since that’s about as big an emotion as Frond can muster. Why the passion deficit? For us, the answer lies in the past he tells us of. Whether Sander himself has found any answers in his reminiscences by the end of the book is an open question, at least for me.
I wish the book had more juice, especially considering the exuberant title, but it’s a fine, well-crafted piece of work, worthy of the praise it’s received.