If Jack London’s Yukon tales married William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County’s blood battles, their thematic and geographic offspring would be Peter Geye’s “Wintering.” Returning to the wilderness of Gunflint, a fictional town up Minnesota’s North Shore, Geye’s third novel explores the unmapped borderlands between Minnesota and Canada as well as the uncharted territories of the human heart.
After Harry Eide’s hat is found floating on the Burntwood River and the search for him is called off, Harry’s son, Gus, and Harry’s longtime mistress, Berit, share stories of this flinty and enigmatic man. Their stories — Gus’ of adventure, Berit’s of domesticity — dovetail nicely to suggest that just as the Burntwood River cannot be dammed, the human heart cannot be comprehended.
As the town’s unofficial historian, Berit recounts the early days of Gunflint, articulating each generation’s trials and secrets. With the insight of a contemplative, she recounts how she fell in love with Harry and waited 20 lonely years for him. Gus, for his part, confides to Berit a vivid saga of his six-month journey into the wilderness with his father when he was 18, a journey that nearly killed them both.
That wilderness trip seems the heart of the novel. In it, Gus and Harry portage and canoe toward an unclear destination. Lost, they hole up in a hunting shack to survive the winter. But what Harry hasn’t told his son is that he has also lured his nemesis, Charlie Aas, there. Charlie, an unscrupulous businessman, a dog torturer and brother killer, a man who rapes the wilderness and steals other men’s wives (in this instance, Harry’s), is evil incarnate. When he appears, father and son join forces in a scene that is not easily forgotten.
There’s a lot to love about this novel: the beauty of the wilderness, the tenderness of relationships, the craft. It’s easy to read scenes such as when Gus confronts a bear — “He moved toward her like maybe they were grappling partners, him smiling and rubbing his hands together like it was time to get at it” — and think the novel is all outdoor adventure, but it’s more than that. When Harry shoots a doe, orphaning her fawns, the scene suggests Harry’s abandonment by his own mother. And when Harry claims the doe died falling from a cliff, you realize how much he wants to protect his son from sadness.
There’s a recognizable yearning in Gus and Berit’s recollections of Harry. Theirs is the feeling you get at the funeral of a loved one — how you ache to hear the stories you never knew so that you might round out the man. Harry was a beloved, mysterious, recalcitrant loner. Even Gus, who for six months paddled, portaged and spooned in a sleeping bag with the man, doesn’t know him. So, too, Berit yearns to fill in the gaps. But in the sharing of stories there is healing, if not complete comprehension — and that, it seems to me, is the point and triumph of this novel.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
By: Peter Geye.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 300 pages, $26.95.
Events: Book launch, 6:30 p.m. June 20, Lake Monster Brewing, 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul, hosted by Magers & Quinn; 10 a.m. July 8, Lake Country Booksellers, White Bear Lake; 6:30 p.m. July 19, Valley Bookseller, Stillwater; 7 p.m. July 21, Common Good Books, St. Paul.