“These woods are the world,” a character in the involving The Lighthouse Road says, “and the world ain’t an easy place.” The world in which Peter Geye’s second novel is mainly set is a logging camp and small village beyond the borders of Duluth, Minnesota, in an era that straddles the turn of the 20th century. The author’s astute study centers on the sense of kith and kinship nurtured within a community, in both its quiet moments and disquieting years. At the same time that its insidious and slowly leaked secrets engender circumspection and intrigue from the reader, The Lighthouse Road rewardingly challenges him or her by leapfrogging and even catapulting back and forth within its 25-year span.
The novel takes its first big jump forward on a cold November day in 1896 in the village of Gunflint when destitute Norwegian immigrant Thea Eide gives birth to a boy named Odd, though she dies not long after. Odd is taken in by the enterprising Hosea Grimm, an apothecary and the closet thing the village has to a doctor–with a lucrative sideline in bootlegging and prostitution–and growing up with half-sister Rebekah, an orphan who had been rescued and adopted by Hosea from the Chicago streets.
Though Odd “was a fearful boy … scared of almost everything, but especially of the fact that he’d never had a mother,” he grows to be earnest, independent, and hardworking, and earns a living as a fisherman. Soon enough, however, he builds his own boat from which to fish. But also, as it turns out, with which to make an escape–with Rebekah, who is pregnant with his baby.
The destination is Duluth, where the couple stumbles into life in a luxury hotel room and Odd finds good work as a boatbuilder and a new father figure to take the place of Hosea. It’s a new life, a better life, one that Odd thinks he could get used to: “This isn’t who we are,” he says, “but it’s who we deserve to be.” But as the father-to-be and the expectant mother get more settled, some disconcerting and increasingly troubling truths emerge in the turn of events and the relationship, as Rebekah “drifted off into a world of sad thoughts where he wasn’t welcome.”
The dispiriting twists that threaten the course for the future and the sense of family comprise a near-culmination of the narrative’s stealth developments and subtly-emerging mysteries only hinted at in previous chapters. “The big bed and fine linens, the gourmet dinner, the hot bath,” Odd realizes, “was [already] showing its dim foolishness.” It may be enough to make Odd take matters into his own hands. What doesn’t kill you…
The narrative ebb and flow combines with Peter Geye’s well-considered characterizations to point up the all-too-human mix of good and bad within each of us. And the author’s nuanced imagery superbly paints a vivid sense of time and place—the ever-present snow and frozen landscape just might evoke Odd’s ice-fishing expeditions more than a little vicariously. All of these forces and impulses—and Geye’s deft ability in juggling and balancing these aspects–benefits from The Lighthouse Road’s complex but successfully-executed structure and interplay. Geye’s craftsmanship and style enriches and augments the substance of it all, too.