Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

The Lighthouse Road debuts this week but I've already read it three times, each one bringing fresh revelations and reminding me of why I love to read. It begins in an 1896 snowstorm as Thea Eide delivers her son.  She, a recent immigrant with no close family, dies soon after and the entire small Minnesota town of Gunflint raises her son Odd.

“From the first days of his life, Odd had been the whole town’s ward.   All his sweaters were hand-knit by fisherman’s wives; his haircuts given under a bowl by the innkeeper’s wife; the men took him hunting and handed down their own son’s outgrown boots and shotguns; Christmas morning always found twenty gifts intended for Odd on the apothecary doorstep.  The godly wives took him to church on Sunday mornings, and the schoolteacher stayed after class to help him with his lessons.”

Hosea Grimm took Thea in, delivered Odd and helped many in Gunflint. Now Odd lives with Hosea and his ward Rebekah at the apothecary where Grimm serves as town doctor and impresario of activities good and evil.

The Shivering Timber was an unabashed brothel and whiskey parlor that had evaded the reach of the pious Gunflinters and constables by catering to their weird and secret proclivities. It housed a dozen or so prostitutes and was guarded by two woodsmen brothers from Wisconsin on Grimm’s payroll. . . Hosea had a forty percent stake in the place. He also kept the girls in calomel and morphine, gave them abortions, and pulled their rotten teeth.  And he supplied the whiskey.  So he had a king’s reign.”

When a town or a people are beholden, they often ignore evil and as Odd grows and the book moves between the years before his birth to his adulthood, the novel shows the consequences of living in such a blind-eyed society.  As Odd notes: “The blind eye was a bad disease in this town.”

Historical fiction aficionados will relish the picture perfect portrayals of life in the 1890s lumber camp where Thea cooks and acclimates herself to America as temperatures dip to forty below. Geye evokes the cold and camp life with a particular affinity as in “The moon hung gibbous and low, casting the snow in the gorge in bronze light.”  And of the mess hall where “The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike.  As their coats melted in the mess halls heat, they appeared to be vaporizing.”

As Odd grows, he hauls bootleg liquor for Hosea in his small skiff in an electrical storm, encounters a bear in its den and fights for what he wants. Geye’s portrayal of Odd’s journey toward manhood and of the lumber camp where Thea cooks evokes writers like Per Petterson and Annie Proulx as well as the classic Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

But like such great writers, Geye doesn't just pen precise sentences, he also steers the plot into uncertain waters revealing young Odd’s secret love of Rebekah and Thea’s harrowing story.  This reviewer will not reveal all the memorable plot twists that make the book a thrilling page turner because every reader should be afforded the joy of encountering these as Geye presents them.

Having tagged at least a dozen passages as essential to quote in this review, I’ll end with just one more section to whet your appetite:

“In mid-March, along the river’s frozen waters, two thirteen-year-old boys shattered the glaze on a knee-deep and moon-shaped snow.  They wore snowshoes they’d made of bent ash and moose gut.  Their hats were beaver fur, trapped and skinned and finally sewn while they sat around the fire in the wigwam.  

Odd and Danny Riverfish. They wore bowie knives on their belts and carried shotguns over their shoulders and they dragged a toboggan behind them.”. . .
The boys had skipped school and Odd asked Danny if their teacher would miss them:

“Miss Huff could make a forest fire boring. Besides I don’t plan on ever going to that schoolhouse again. . . Arithmetic never got a beaver tail to fry up, did it?”
“Or a pelt to sell,” Odd said, then fell silent for a moment before he added, “She tells Hosea I’m truant and I’ll get the belt.”
“Someday you’ll be doing the belting.”
“I’ll never be able to whomp Hosea.”
“Sure you will, Someday we’ll whomp him together, steal his money.”
The mere thought of this made Odd despair. His feelings about Hosea were as complicated as his own true history.

Read this book and allow yourself to sink into the exciting yet complicated lives of a group of sure-to-be-classic characters.  Buy it for everyone you know.

Summing it Up:  Read this for the story of a young man’s survival in a small town in turn-of-the-century Minnesota.  Devour its depiction of immigrant ships, lumber camps, towns with secrets and cities where the young try to start afresh and of fierce love that will not quit.  Choose it for your book club as you’ll want to talk about the ending the minute you finish reading.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Gourmet, Historical Fiction, Book Club

Publication date: October 2, 2012

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