Northernmost, by Peter Geye
Many works of literary fiction have a very strong sense of place. Just think of all the works you can list where the places they are set in – New York, Chicago, New Orleans, the Pacific Northwest, the Texas Panhandle – are integral to the story itself. But other places seem to exist more as tropes, reinforced by humorous stereotypes. Places like Minnesota.
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When you think of Minnesota, what comes to mind? Snow. Cold. Taciturn Scandinavians. Hot dish and jello salads. Yah, sure, you betchas. And you’d be right, but only by scratching the surface. If you want to know what it is to accept the cold, to embrace the snow, to glimpse the true mien of those taciturn Scandinavians, you could do no better than to read the works of Peter Geye.
Author of four novels all set in Minnesota, his most recent – Northenmost – follows two generations of the Eide family (whose other generations are also at the center of his books The Lighthouse Road and Wintering). We first meet Greta, a modern day writer living in Minneapolis with her husband and two children, whose extended family of Norwegian descent has lived in northern Minnesota for generations. Greta is struggling with the growing knowledge that her marriage has failed, and trying to reconcile the life in which she grew up with where she now finds herself.
But the novel also centers around Greta’s great, great, great grandfather, Odd Einer Eide who, in 1897, returned to his village of Hammerfest, Norway after being lost in the Arctic during a sealing hunt. Presumed dead, his reappearance captures the notice of a heralded newsagent, who wishes to publish his story of survival. As he recounts his ordeal, as well as tries to rebuild his relationship with his wife, we see a man who is willing to give up on his god and his life, but never on the faith he has in his family.
The juxtaposition of the woman who is surrounded with practical comforts yet feels emotionally numb with the impoverished man who is challenged by frigid circumstances yet confronts a spiritual awareness is masterful. When Greta, on a whim, takes a side trip to her ancestral home of Hammerfest while on her way to Oslo to confront her husband, she finds herself contemplating an unexpected awakening, a “thawing” of her frozen self. Odd Einer, also, finds himself on an unexpected path upon his return to Hammerfest as he struggles to express his ordeal as well a reforge a complicated bond with his beloved wife. Through it all, the intimately bitter landscape of the Arctic, the harsh Norwegian coast and the sweeping austerity of northern Minnesota lends itself to a deeply personal assessment of self that is brutally honest, hard to witness, yet ultimately compelling and uplifting.
Nothernmost, my friends, is the Minnesota I would love for you to experience. It is also a marvelous, engaging, and singular read, regardless of the environs you find yourself.