Wintering begins when elderly Harry Eide disappears from his sickbed and vanishes into the forbidding, northernmost wilderness that surrounds the town of Gunflint, Minnesota…a wilderness he has known his whole life. He’d done this once before, more than thirty years earlier. In 1963, Harry pitched this audacious, potentially fatal scheme to his eighteen-year-old son Gustav of canoeing into the wood with winter already coming on supposedly as a reenactment of the ancient voyageurs’ journeys of discovery…although his true motive only became apparent to Gus once they had gone to far to turn back.
‘He likened our adventure to going to battle, and said we should prepare as though that’s what we were doing. So we did. He bought me a Ruger handgun. He bought powerful binoculars. He dug from the attic the field pants he’d worn in the Ardennes.’ – page 35
With Harry pronounced dead, Gus relates their adventure in vivid detail to Berit Lovig, a woman who’d spent much of her life devotedly waiting for Harry while working for his estranged mother, Rebecca Grimm. So, a middle-aged man rectifying his personal history, an aging lady wrestling with her own, and with the entire saga of a town and region they’d helped to form and were in turn formed by, relentlessly and unforgettably.
Compared to Richard Russo for the small town depictions of gruff and taciturn northerners and compared to Jack London for the bleak and frozen wildernesses (both natural and human) explored, Geye’s novel could be in much worse company.
He looked back out over the distance. He studied the contours of the hills. He marked the two lakes he coudl see. Small lakes. He imagined skiing to them. Beyond them. He flexed his arms and shoulders, reached back to feel him hamstrings, bent at the waist and put his nose on his knees and felt the muscles tretch and burn. When he looked up again he saw that wilderness as if for the first time. It was the wilderness of the soul. His soul and all the world’s soul. It was untamable and ungovernable and unforgiving and it didn’t give a damn about him and his proud thoughts. It was not an idea. It was real and had to be lived in, not just visited. No, not lived in. Survived. He had to survive. So he took his compass out again and held it once in each direction and reckoned the world was just that simple if you let it be. – page 167
Published on June 7th by Knopf (a Random House imprint for you non-publishing plebs), it is a book that has not gained much notice outside of Minnesota. In typical upper-midwestern fashion, anything popular there has never been heard of outside of it (brandy, cheese curds, polka, ice fishing, rhubarb, lefse)…with the notable exceptions of Garrison Keillor and Brett Favre.
I know a thing or two about the upper-midwest and the boundary waters due to genealogy research I did on behalf of my best friend, whose father was born on a houseboat floating on Saganaga Lake, one of the many lakes that straddle the border of the US and Canada…the boundary line between nations indiscernible underneath all that cold water. Her grandfather turned out to be none other than the boundary waters legend Benny Ambrose, who homesteaded in the north country wilderness for over 60 years. I would highly recommend reading up about Benny in this fabulous article published by the Minnesota Historical Society by clicking here. So even though I know a bit about life as a trapper and guide in the boundary waters, I was in for a treat reading Wintering as it introduced me to another historical figure I had previously known nothing about: David Thompson.
David Thompson was a British-Canadian fur-trader and surveyor. While exploring for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Thompson fell down a mountainside and broke his leg, injuring it so badly that he spent an entire year re-learning how to walk. During that time he studied astronomy, mathematics and surveying and set his cap on mapping the northern wilderness. He eventually defected to HBC’s rival, the North West Company, where he was allowed to pursue his real interest of mapping Canada’s interior wilderness. Over his lifespan he travelled around 90,000 kilometers across North America and mapped 4.9 million square kilometers along the way. Here is a look at a copy of a map David Thompson created in 1815 of “Western British North America”, covering from Lake Superior all the way west to the Pacific, along with a close-up of the lakes, waterways and portages of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
When Harry and Gus Eide take their trip into the northern wilderness they attempt to follow if not this map then a similar one, created by the original French-Canadian voyageurs. The problem, Gus discovers, is that Harry has been copying the old maps for years and in the process creating maps that are half based on real maps and half works of Harry’s imagination.
I don’t want to give away any of what really happens in the wilderness, either on that dangerous trip made by Harry and Gus in the ’60’s or the one made by Harry alone as an old man. The book focuses far more on the former rather than the latter…almost suggesting that the end of a story is the least important part, but not in a way that belittles either Harry or Berit. Berit struggles with the story of her life, unmarried and childless, so intrinsically connected to the story of the Eides and of Gunflint, especially as she had to watch Harry succumb to old age and dementia.
“I’d passed that evening as I had so many others before it, sitting at his bedside, reminding him of who we used to be, feeling at times that I was not only disppearing into darkness of his mind but from the world altogether. It was no less strange that evening than it had been at the start of his confinement to see a man still so bodily strong becoming a child again. No less strange and no less unbearable.” – page 6
It is people discovering themselves, through their own stories and through the stories of those they’ve loved. In the end, Gus realizes, “how brave a thing it was for him to try to rediscover something, even if it was only himself, not a continent.” A fantastic novel, not just for people of the northwoods, and a work that has earned The Taste Maven Stamp of Approval. Peter Geye will be launching his book in the Twin Cities on June 20th at Lake Monster Brewing and in northwoods Wisconsin on June 24th at Redbery Books. All those in the region should attend.
That means you, Dad.
Geye, Peter. Wintering. New York: Knopf, 2016. Print.