With its depiction of wintry weather along the shores of Lake Superior and even a view of Isle Royale, Michiganders (and Wisconsinites) will relate to Peter Geye’s novel The Lighthouse Road even though its setting is Northern Minnesota. Geye is a native of Duluth, and some of the novel’s action takes place there, but mostly it alternates between 1895-96 and 1910-37 in the lakeside town of Gunflint, near a logging camp called Burnt Wood Camp.
The book opens dramatically in November 1896 with a young woman, Thea, about to give birth. As a cook at Burnt Wood Camp, she has to be transported by horse-drawn carriage to the town’s doctor, Hosea Grimm. The first chapter ends with the prediction of her death. In this way, the two hooks of the story are introduced—how did she get pregnant and how did she die? The reader soon learns that she survives the birth, but not until the end do we learn how she dies.
Thea had been sent from Norway to Minnesota by her father, who realized her future would be bleak if she stayed with him. Though she was supposed to live with her uncle, who had a farm outside Gunflint, she was told after she arrived that her aunt had committed suicide and her uncle as a result had lost his mind. So instead, she goes to the nearby camp to become the cook.
Thea’s life at the camp is in a hovel:
. . . a den not seven feet deep . . . fortified [by] dirt walls with pine planks and the roof built the same. . . . Each day after Thanksgiving the hours of daylight shriveled until it seemed there was hardly any purpose to the sun rising at all. . . . The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike. . . . With the New Year came the cold. Colder even than the bitterest days in Hammerfest [Norway].
Geye does a wonderful job of reconstructing the life and language of that time. Thea’s fears of giving birth come from seeing stillborn children, most dramatically her own mother’s, who had “merely wrapped it in a blanket and set the corpse on the puncheon floor.” And Thea is covered in an eiderdown of goose feathers for the ride to town.
The surrounding wilderness is fraught with dangers, such as bears and wolves starving so that they risk coming into the camp. As a result, the camp is guarded by two huge dogs called Ovcharkas, “little mountains,” animals whose reputation was that they treed a bear.
The other drama in the novel, the story taking place more than two decades after the first one, concerns two men and a woman in between them. Odd is Thea’s son, a fisherman who builds his own boat in order to facilitate his job of whiskey running. He has been brought up by Grimm, who also has raised a girl named Rebekah. Grimm’s other jobs, besides being the town’s doctor, are his whiskey running, prostitution, and pornography. He rescues Rebekah from a horrible life in Chicago but holds her hostage from any other men while also using her. Although she helped deliver Odd when Thea gives birth, she and Odd fall in love later on. And when she becomes pregnant at the age of forty, she is afraid—not just from having assisted Grimm with many births, but also because of her age. And both Odd and Rebekah are afraid of Grimm’s reaction to their love.
Odd’s resolution to this problem seems extreme. And Odd, though he loves Rebekah, is as absolute in his ways as Grimm. Even with the truths gradually revealed from the past, Odd himself adds to the tradition of lies and deceit that he has suffered from.
These are complex characters, Rebekah loving Grimm as the only father she had and Odd in his solitary love for his son, whom he talks to as a babe:
I built this boat for all the wrong reasons, Harry. . . . My problem? I never know what the wrong reasons are until it’s too late. Same goes for your mother, rest her soul. . . . See, I built it so I could run more whiskey. Catch more fish. Get more. But now I got all I want . . .
Thea is never allowed to talk to her uncle on his farm and where she was when she was about to give birth. Geye does not give us two crucial months in 1896, the time between Rebekah noting Thea’s pregnancy in August, when Thea is staying with the doctor, and the book’s dramatic opening at the camp in November. Would she have been sent back to the camp in her condition?
Despite these questions, this novel is riveting from beginning to end. The Lighthouse Road is a dramatic story of rough living in the harsh climate that informs the two main male characters’ dominant personalities.