Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is a relaxing novel that takes the reader on a tour of the Norwegian countryside and forests throughout the eras, jumping between modern-day Norway and 1940’s Norway just after the German occupation, following protagonist Trond Sander as he is forced to relive his past to understand his present and to accept his future.
Three years after his wife died in a tragic car accident, Trond finds himself widowed and alone, living in a new house and environment. He has cashed out his retirement and moved to the remote countryside to avoid people, who he never cared for much, and spends the rest of his years living as he wishes with his dog, Lyra. Not knowing anyone, nor they him, Trond remarks how little communication is needed to form relationships in small communities where neighbors “know about my working life, how old I am, that my wife died three years ago in an accident I only just survived myself, that she was not my first wife, and that I have two grown-up children from an earlier marriage, and that they have children themselves.” Trond accepts and enjoys his superficial relationship with his new community, offering them just enough information necessary for them to form their own understanding of him, knowing that “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 the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are,” and liking the fact that “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 lets you off the hook.”
Not having to make an effort to be accepted by the community and retaining his solitude seems to be working until Trond discovers that in his quest to remove himself from all aspects of his former life, he has moved next door to a ghost from his past. One evening, a neighbor wanders onto Trond’s property while looking for his dog. Trond instantly recognizes the man as his childhood friend Lars Haug, stating, “Lars is Lars even though I saw him last when he was ten years old, and now he’s past sixty, and if this had been something in a novel it would just have been irritating.” Lars is a part of the past that Trond has worked a lifetime to repress. By pointing out the far-fetched coincidence that the protagonist should happen upon the person partially responsible for him wanting to escape society, Petterson gives the chance meeting realism and honesty, a twist of fate to which the reader is able to somehow relate, or at the very least, accept.
Unnerved by the unwelcome presence from his adolescence, Trond is thrown back to the summer of 1948, where he spends a summer working with his father on their timber farm in Norway’s forests, while his mother and older sister remain at home in Oslo. He is woken one morning by fellow fifteen-year-old Jon Haug, who wakes him regularly to steal horses from their neighbor Barkald, the wealthiest landowner in the region, and take them for a joy ride, returning them unharmed. Their day begins as any other adventure, but after their ride, Trond witnesses a frightening side of Jon as he crushes a tiny bird’s nest in his hands, destroying something helpless and precious and upsetting Trond without him fully grasping why. Trond returns home emotionally disturbed, soaked to the bone after a sudden rainstorm, and anxious to get away from his friend. As he dries by the fire, his father delivers the grave news that Lars, Jon’s younger brother, shot and killed Odd, Lars’s twin. The killing, of course, was an accident, but it had been perpetrated using Jon’s air rifle, which he neglectfully left out loaded. Jon voluntarily left the family to live with relatives in Innbygda, never to see Trond again, and taking part of Trond’s innocence with him. The incident causes an older Trond to reflect on “my friend Jon who one day just disappeared out of my life because one of his brothers had shot the other out of his life with a gun that he, Jon, had forgotten to unload. It was high...