A writer explores her family’s humble Norwegian roots.
In 1897, Norwegian fisherman Odd Einar Eide sets sail hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle on a seal hunt. When his companion is slaughtered by a polar bear, Odd Einar must survive alone in the “fine desolation” of ice and snow for two weeks, until he’s rescued by a passing ship. Given up for dead by his wife, Inger, Odd Einar returns home in the midst of his own funeral, forcing the impoverished couple to face the challenge of restoring their already fragile relationship. That task is complicated by the lingering ache from the absence of their daughter, Thea, departed two years earlier for America and silent since that time. Odd Einar’s tale is framed by the story of his descendant Greta Nansen, a freelance journalist living in present-day Minneapolis, who embarks on the project of reclaiming her family’s history as her own marriage of 20 years implodes. Alternating between the “rocky shore of hardened, desperate people living in poverty and gloom” in 19th-century rural Norway and Greta’s life, where, despite her material comfort, loneliness is "the only feeling she had anymore,” Geye (Wintering, 2016, etc.) artfully spans 120 years of the Eide family’s story. With equal skill, he portrays Odd Einar’s dramatic confrontation with implacable nature while exploring the tension between terror and resignation that haunts the involuntary adventurer’s every step in that crisis. The choice to pair this pulsating adventure story with the subdued domestic drama of Greta’s failed marriage and her discovery of the possibility of new love with musician Stig Hjalmarson when she impulsively travels to her ancestral home in the remote village of Hammerfest is not without risk. But Geye maintains an elegant counterpoint between the two narratives so that the novel is equally satisfying whether it’s situated in the past or present.
One man’s terrifying story of survival in an Arctic wasteland reverberates profoundly in the life of his distant descendant.