Duluth, Minnesota, located on Lake Superior’s North Shore, is the nation’s final inland harbor even though it is staunchly situated in the upper Midwest, accessible to ocean-going vessels via the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. To stand by the Aerial Lift Bridge as a huge freighter ghosts through the channel, to watch the ship glide through dark water while crewmen busy themselves on deck, to hear its sounding horn, is an almost out of body experience.
The Great Lakes are legendary in their severity; those who ply the great ships that transverse them are a breed apart. Many people know of this through the Gordon Lightfoot ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, a lament of the sinking of that massive freighter in a sudden November storm, and for the loss of all aboard her. (“Does anyone know where the love of God goes/When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”)
In Safe from the Sea, Minnesota native Peter Geye weaves a compelling story of an ailing father, a prodigal son and the pall of a maritime shipwreck casting shadows across their relationship. Set at a remote cabin in the North Woods at the edge of Lake Superior, it’s a moving and sometimes searing character study of two men caught up in their own pain and betrayal.
Noah Torr lives in Boston where he owns an antique map shop. He and his wife have unsuccessfully been trying to conceive a child; so far all the pregnancies have not come to term and their marriage is starting to bow under the strain. When Noah gets the call from his father, who still lives in a remote cabin north of Duluth, he knows something is wrong. He hasn’t seen his father in eight years, since his East Coast wedding when the two parted acrimoniously. Now his father is calling, asking for help to get the old place ready for winter. When Noah asks why, his father simply says “I’m sick, Noah.”
Olaf Torr is a stubborn man, a hard drinker, an absentee father whose pride never allowed him to ask for help. But he is also a broken man, a man haunted by closely guarded memories. For Olaf was an officer on the SS Ragnarøk, the jewel of the Superior Steel Company fleet, when it foundered and sank on Lake Superior in 1967. Out of a crew of 30, only three survived, him included. Although he spent many subsequent years on other freighters, Olaf was never the same; his marriage fell apart and then his wife died, his family left him, and he fell into the stoic isolation and resiliency of his Norwegian forefathers, living alone with his thoughts and his memories.
Now he is sick. A resentful but dutiful Noah flies back to his boyhood home and takes up where his life had left off, helping his father cut wood, clear fallen pines, fix up the house. They fish, they walk, they make food. Slowly, the truth comes out. Olaf is dying. He needs to put his house and his life in order.
And he needs to share with his son – the son who walked away – the stories with which he has suffered alone for so many years. Safe from the Sea is a gorgeous, contemplative yet gripping book about being a son to a difficult father, about never truly being able to leave your past behind you, and about reconciling where you came from with where you end up being. Author Peter Geye has an incredible ear for the rhythm of the North
Shore and the cadence of maritime life, as well as a generous eye for life as it simply is, for that which best unfolds on its own, for time spent taking in that which surrounds us without judgment. He manages to spin a poignant tale without tugging at heartstrings, and the story is all the better for it. In our fast moving, over saturated, sensationalized world, it’s rewarding to simply sit and read a quiet book, one that runs as deep as the Great Lakes that drive it.