Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Site Search
   Search Metroland.Net
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Looking Up
   Myth America
   Rapp On This
 News & Features
   What a Week
   Loose Ends
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
   Tech Life
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad

Parallel Universes

By Margaret Black

Out Stealing Horses

By Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born

Greywolf Press, 252 pages, $22

Flower Children

By Maxine Swann

Riverhead, 211 pages, $21.95

In Out Stealing Horses and Flo wer Children, now-grown children examine the elusive past, trying to grasp just what their unusual fathers have meant in their lives. The narrators—Trond in Out Stealing Horses, and Maeve in Flower Children—maintain emotional distance and a profound objectivity about this man who preoccupies them; at the same time, they carefully render, with rich, heartfelt accuracy, the backdrop of the world around them.

When Out Stealing Horses opens, Trond is an old man who has isolated himself in a chilly forest cabin in Norway following the deaths of his wife and sister. He has children, grown daughters, but he has left without saying anything to anyone about where he is going. In part he has simply taken off to the country to die, but he has also longed all his life “to be alone in a place like this,” and gradually we learn why.

Back in 1948, 15-year-old Trond, a city boy from Oslo, spends the summer in a similar forest cabin with his father. Besides enjoying near-idyllic adventures with Jon, a local boy his own age, Trond also helps his father, digging ditches, cutting hay, and logging. A horrible chance tragedy disrupts the community, and Trond also learns about his father’s activities during the Nazi occupation. But when Trond says what he thinks is a temporary goodbye and returns home, it turned out to be the last he ever sees of his father, who simply vanishes.

The four kids in Flower Children could hardly be more different. Americans living in rural Pennsylvania, they are the offspring of two intelligent, politically committed, and magnificently self-indulgent hippies who have dropped out of their Ivy League educations to live off the land. The children are “free to run anywhere they like whenever they like, so they do. . . . Their parents don’t care what they do. They’re the luckiest children alive!” All too soon—sister Lu is eight, narrator Maeve is six, and brothers Tuck and Clyde are four and two—their father, Sam, has left the house to live with another woman (and many, many others after her). Meanwhile, their mother beds down with a succession in the strange family house (four floors, one room per floor; the toilet “stands out in the open near the stairwell”). Sometimes the boyfriends are good at upkeep, but more often it’s husband Sam who repairs the jerry-built dwelling. He returns frequently to carry his children off on adventures (dances in the city where only old people go, pro-wrestling championship matches, meditation with a guru from Bombay), always talking nonstop in the car, getting speeding tickets.

Trond tells what he remembers precisely, beginning with the morning his friend Jon meets him to go “out stealing horses.” Trond’s horse shies at barbed wire, and “the laws of physics tore me from my horse’s back and sent me kicking and flailing on in a straight line through the air and right over the fence.” Recovering, he limps home, carefully skirting a patch of stinging nettles. When his father asks why he doesn’t cut them down, Trond says because it will hurt. “You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” his father replies, pulling up all the nettles with his bare hands. Trond toughens over the summer, clearly winning his father’s admiration as well as his affection. Indeed, he becomes a man that year, quite literally purchasing his first adult suit, but he also learns very brutally how love and passion can cut people off, even from those they have loved.

Sam, the father in Flower Children, keeps nothing back, gives up no one, and suffers nothing in silence. He tells his young children “about the women he’s been with, how they make love, what he prefers, or doesn’t like.” When he starts to fall asleep at the wheel, “he tells them that the only way he’ll ever stay awake is if they insult him in the cruelest way they can.” Their efforts make their mouths “turn chalky and their stomachs begin to harden as if with each word they had swallowed a stone. But he seems delighted. He laughs and encourages them, turning around in his seat to look at their faces, his eyes now completely off the road.”

All the chapters offer impressionist videos of little snatches of time—a road trip to their paternal grandparents with Sam’s new girlfriend in tow; a family council at the grandparents’ humongous old family home, where Sam’s failings are shown to have clear genetic roots; going to a new lawyer girlfriend’s party, where Sam destroys all decorum by discussing his morning shits with the head of the law firm. While some chapters focus on things apart from Sam—how their mom’s boyfriend confronts the neighbor who has shot all their dogs; a visit to their maternal grandmother; Maeve’s pre-sexual explorations with two young delinquents—the persistent preoccupation is Sam.

Both books create vivid, real worlds. In Trond’s 15th summer, “it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower.” He recalls how “the inner side of our bare arms turned slowly green,” as they are haying, “and the wire [enclosure] filled up, and we fixed up another one . . . until we had five . . . and the top one with a slightly shallower layer of grass hung down like a thatched roof on each side, so when the rain came it would just run off.” Now, Trond thinks sourly, it’s done by one man on a tractor and then a wrapping machine, producing “huge plasticwhite cubes of stinking silage.”

Maeve and the others “spend their whole lives in trees, young apple trees and old tired ones, red oaks, walnuts, the dogwood when it flowers in May. . . . They discover locust shells, tree frogs, a gypsy moth’s cocoon. . . The children get stung by nettles, ants, poison ivy, poison oak, and bees. They go out into the swamp and come back, their whole heads crawling with ticks and burrs. They pick one another’s scalp outside the house, then lay the ticks on a ledge and grind their bodies to dust with a pointed stone.”

Ultimately Trond is saved by his daughter, who hunts him down, persisting in remaining connected. So, too, do Sam’s children (They survive! They grow up!). They not only return together to their mother at the old house, they also “make a point of seeing [Sam] as he, when they were little, made a point of seeing them.”

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.