Novelists say it all the time: They create their characters with a combination of naivete and marvel, and then these characters spring into a life of their own, decide their course of events, declare independence from the author. It’s one of the miracles of the fiction trade.
Except that the characters in “The Lighthouse Road” didn’t get away with it. They come into the story and shape it, but toward the end Peter Geye knocks them so senseless that they finish the narrative as debrained zombies.
I can’t believe these people would do what Geye describes. “The Lighthouse Road” is a historical novel set in Minnesota in the late 19th century. It could be argued that the real protagonists are snow and trees, lakes and wolves. The novel looks to be squarely in the tradition laid out by Knut Hamsun: Nature rules, and humans survive by the skin of their teeth.
But still there are characters, some of them finely drawn. There is Thea, a beautiful 17-year-old Norwegian who in the 1890s travels alone from the old country to the tiny town of Gunflint, on the coast of a Great Lake. The relatives who should be there to greet her have died, and she’s taken in by Hosea, who runs the town apothecary. He’s an eccentric who makes regular trips to the city to hang out in brothels and takes pornographic photos of his adopted “daughter,” Rebekah, whom he rescued as a waif from one of those houses of ill repute. Thea fares even worse. After being raped, she gives birth to a baby named Odd and dies under mysterious circumstances.
Odd grows up to be an accomplished boat maker and begins a love affair with Rebekah. One may wonder why the pair would fall in love, but the author takes care to make the town of Gunflint almost entirely vacant. Odd has one best friend, an Indian lad, but doesn’t appear to go to school or know any other boys or girls, and outside of some lumberjacks, we meet only one other grown-up: a man who draws up wills and notarizes documents. So Odd and Rebekah are left to their own devices. We know almost nothing of their courtship.
Then Odd builds a much better boat, and the couple runs away to the city. This would be the chance for them to develop and change, to get to know each other and let the reader get to know them, to learn the point of this fictional universe. Will these people be dwarfed by the majestic wilderness that surrounds them, or will they prevail?
But it’s as if they were goldfish, came down with a bad case of ick and started swimming sideways. Rebekah, who was dazzlingly happy when they started out, gets pregnant and suffers from pre-partum depression. “Her guilt ravaged her,” the author writes, “and she gave up any resistance.” Well, okay.
Meanwhile, Rebekah tells Odd how his mother lost her life, a revelation that goes against everything we’ve been told beforehand. She says spiteful things to Odd such as: “Don’t forget, darling, you’re right here with me, living the biggest lie of them all.” Rebekah’s and Thea’s pregnancies are held up side by side. One woman is meant to be “good,” the other “bad.” But what of Odd’s childhood, when he grew up happily with Hosea and Rebekah? They didn’t seem so bad then. No, Geye just decided he wanted these characters to end up a certain way, victims of an erratic plot and the author’s whim.
What is there to say? An author should take care to respect his characters, or they’re apt to rise up and kick his fictional creation to smithereens. I hate to say it, but that’s what they did here.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD
By Peter Geye
Unbridled. 280 pp. $24.95