For me the beauty of Out Stealing Horses was what the author didn’t say, those many unanswered questions that just hang there. We never learn how Jon came to use the watchword of the resistance: Are you coming? We’re going out stealing horses, a much more literal phrase for him and young Trond. We never find out what actually happened to Trond’s father, although Trond mentions that all he has to do is ask his coincidental neighbor Lars. We never know the thought process that caused his father to abandon his family, leaving them only a paltry sum in a Swedish bank, just enough to buy Trond a new suit. We know very little of the intervening years between 1948 and 2000, the present to which all else is a flashback. We never find out what happens between the two aging men who were once children together and who now cut up a fallen tree together. The final fate of Lars’ mother and Trond’s father is not mentioned, although one assumes they spent their remaining years after 1948 together.
The book has been criticized for being flat, a story told without emotion. But you have only to know Norwegians to realize this is the way they face life. The challenges and high points are rather flattened into a sort of continuum.
A central theme in the book is that of loss. Lars shoots his 10-year-old twin brother with a loaded gun left out by his older brother Jon. Jon wantonly smashes an egg from a goldcrest nest, possibly out of frustration for his dead brother; he then leaves home to join the navy. Trond’s father’s macho behavior causes Jon’s father to suffer injuries from which he never recovers. Trond loses his father altogether at the end of the summer of 1948. Trond’s second wife dies in a tragic car accident.
I felt a certain sadness as I watched an old guy try to become a hermit as a way of escaping from life. He is not naive to the existing dangers as he prepares for what could be a harsh Norwegian winter. It is only with some reluctance that he meets his neighbor, contacts someone to plough his snow, and talks to his adult daughter.
The language, even in its translation, is beautiful. We ride the horses bareback in Barkald’s field with teenage Jon and Trond. We feel the hormones rise as Jon’s mother approaches most any man or adolescent boy. We watch the ill-fated logs become stuck on their trip to Sweden. We understand the feelings of betrayal and disappointment Trond and his mother feel in the final chapter.
I especially like the very end of the book, where Trond and his mother have a brief respite from their troubles as they walk down the streets of Karlsrud with Trond wearing his new suit. In the last sentence he draws a line from his father’s philosophy “We do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.” And then the story is over for the reader.