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Book review: ‘Out Stealing Horses’

December 27, 2019 by Abigail Bostwick

In a stunning backdrop of wildness and isolation, Norwegian writer Per Petterson takes readers into the narrator’s long and stories past of grief and loss in “Out Stealing Horses. “

Trond Sander is a retired Oslo business professional who has recently lost both his wife and sister. Under such profound loss, Trond takes to the rural solitude of the northeast region of Norway, buying a spare and rustic cabin near a rouge and cold river. He turns inward to explore solitude and loneliness in hopes of healing. Carrying the guilt of always having preferred to be alone — a self-proclaimed loner — Trond struggles with if he brought the tragedy upon himself as he struggles with his own health and luck and “liberation” from his family and work. 

Trond has to cultivate the new life he’s cut out for himself. He learned to talk and walk alone in the middle-of-nowhere cabin he has selected for himself, taking days of quiet reflection with nothing but radio, the woods and his dog. He reflects upon his life, his move to the country and the now “impossible situation” he has created. 

When Trond’s friend appears at his doorstep with an offer to share a boyhood memory, it is a chance for Trond to break his self-pity. Together the friends remember, when, as boys, the two “borrowed” horses to take a joy ride. The stories from Trond’s past give him a chance for renewed connection and hope — but Trond finds himself plunging deeper into darkness upon his friend leaving and his return to his life of living alone. It is the ride, however, that sparks a memory with his rider friend that pulls him deeper, the memory of when he last saw his father, a quiet hero of the Norwegian resistance against occupying Nazis during World War II.

“Out Stealing Horses” explores those forgotten years, ones Trond did not allow himself to deliberate upon too much during his younger years. 

The protagonist is not an entirely likable character. He gets drunk and muses over himself and the ways he has been wronged. He is not Thoreau in the woods, but rather a cranky man who cannot be pleased. Yet, his story offers peace and quiet — a trip down his memory lane through a life where he’s opted to change everything and leave so much to the natural passage of time and the nature of the wilderness. It is a simple and cutting novel about the line between childhood and adulthood, being parented and being a parent, of love and loss, work and play. Despite the difficulty connecting to the main character, the vivid writing and end message hit the reader where it intends: the heart. 

“People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to.”

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