Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses

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Out Stealing Horses Summary

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Out Stealing Horses (2005), by Norwegian author Per Petterson, follows an older man’s meditations on and acceptance of his past life and future death. The most recent English translation is by Anne Born and the novel won high praise from The New York Times and The New Yorker. It also won the 2007 IMPAC award, which comes with a cash award of 115,000 dollars.

The novel’s recurring themes include strained family relationships, memory, and guilt. The novel is written in the first person, with the reader often overhearing the protagonist’s thoughts.

Trond Sander lives by himself, by choice, in a dilapidated old cabin in a remote area of eastern Norway. It is October 1999. His only companion is a dog named Lyra whose breed he doesn’t know. He spent his working life in Oslo but has since retired. City life was never for him, and he’s much happier living on this remote patch of cold earth.

The reader doesn’t learn until much later just why Trond is estranged from his children and grandchildren. All we know is that Trond craves isolation more than anything else.

But then one day, Trond meets his only neighbor, Lars Haug. Lyra wants to play with Lars’ dog, Poker. The two men make small talk before Trond recognizes just who his neighbor is: the younger brother of one of Trond’s closest friends, Jon. Trond last saw Lars when he was ten years old. This was after Lars accidentally shot his twin brother, Odd, in the face while playing with their older brother’s gun.

As a result of this meeting, Trond begins to spend a lot of time thinking back to the summer of 1948. He was 15 years old then. He was spending the summer with his father in a similarly remote setting near the Swedish border.

One day, Trond’s good friend Jon says they’re going to steal horses. The two head out during a beautiful summer day. The Germans were defeated three years ago, and Trond can’t remember if he and Jon often talked about the war, but he knows that his father never spoke about it.

The boys have a great time hunting rabbits, swimming in the lake, and sailing. Trond reflects that Jon taught him to be adventurous and life-loving, even a little bit reckless. They look around for horses to steal. They decide to steal horses from a man named Barkald, who already owns more than enough horses, as well as more land than anyone else in the area. They successfully ride the horses away from Barkald’s property, but then Trond loses his grip and falls to the ground, where he loses consciousness.

It was a summer of powerful personal revelations for Trond. He thinks about his father’s experience in both World Wars, as well as his own mortality for the first time. He learns that his father was part of an underground resistance movement in Norway, after the country was invaded by Germany.

While Trond grew up thinking his father was an emotionally-distant man who spent most of his time in a cabin away from his family, he was actually busy helping to fight the Axis powers, while pretending to be a compliant, complicit Norwegian citizen. Trond’s father (whose name is not mentioned) went to the cabin often to secretly send and receive illicit letters. He was also integral in helping Jews to escape German-occupied Norway.

Tond’s father’s behavior contrasts greatly with that of Jon’s father, who deliberately ignored what the Germans were doing throughout Norway. He even allows his wife to be found by the Nazis after he chooses not to sweep away her footsteps in the snow. Fortunately, Franz, a friend of Trond’s father, blows up a bridge that the Nazi use, enabling Jon’s mother and a Jewish refugee to make their escape.

Franz was actually the source for much of Trond’s knowledge about his father’s activities; his father, though he loved Trond deeply, was unable to tell his son about his past. Trond triggered all of these war-time stories by asking Franz about the red star tattoo he had on his arm; Franz tells him that the tattoo was a symbol of comradeship for the communist party.

As Trond continues to reflect on his life, the reader learns that his wife died in a car accident. The loss was so sudden and severe that it caused Trond to completely remove himself from all social settings.

While Trond is submerged in his own memories, Lars make an unannounced visit, and the two have dinner together. After dinner, Lars admits that he knows who Trond is; Trond does the same. Neither talks in depth about what this means, and they clean up in silence.

Trond’s memories from the war become more insistent and more vivid. One of these memories is from 1943, when Trond was 10. His Uncle Arne tried to escape a police station after being caught for assisting the resistance, and he was shot and killed by the Germans. The family is emotionally distraught by this, particularly Uncle Amund, who was Arne’s twin brother.

The novel ends with a series of anti-climactic but emotionally powerful scenes. Trond rides horses with his father in 1948. Trond also walks arm in arm with his mother down a street.