Readers of Petterson’s award-winning Out Stealing Horses (2007) will find this translation of the Norwegian author’s first published book, scheduled to appear in conjunction with his latest novel, I Refuse, takes a gentler approach to childhood.
Ten brief stories make up this minimalist coming-of-age tale set in the 1960s. Young Arvid grows up in a working-class family in Veitvet, outside Oslo. The book’s opening line—“Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous”—establishes the primary importance of Arvid’s father in his life. When the local shoe industry collapses and Dad loses his position as a factory foreman, Arvid is too young to understand the financial strain and exhibits an innocent’s brutal scorn at the toothbrushes Dad brings home from his new factory job. But the 6-year-old intuitively senses tensions in the household. When Arvid’s sensitivity to the anxiety causes bad dreams, Dad shows great gentleness. Then Arvid’s grandfather dies, and the boy’s first reaction is excitement that Dad, now the boss of the family, will allow him to use a previously off-limits canoe. But at the funeral, he becomes upset imagining Dad in the coffin. By the time he turns 8, Arvid is grown up enough to face grudgingly that others, like his fat neighbor Bomann, have complicated feelings. Bullied for refusing to acknowledge that people have sex, Arvid is secretly “sad” to face the truth he’s learned from Dad. A slightly older, tougher Arvid plays war games with his friends, taking boyish risks that could end disastrously but don’t, any more than the actual Cuban missile crisis that rivets his attention. Maturing from early obliviousness into a conscious sense of ambivalent responsibility, Arvid finds himself offering Dad the tender care he once received as Dad fights his own demons.
Arvid’s is far from an unhappy childhood, but writing within a child’s limited vision, Petterson uses what’s unspoken to wrench the reader’s heart.