Original review posted on The Book Smugglers
It never gets old and it never ceases to fascinate me how reading can be a completely unpredictable act. How books are still able to surprise me even when I have the highest expectations. Take Revolver, for example. It has garnered the highest of praises (starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly to name only but two), nominations for many awards (including the Carnegie Medal) and this year it became a Printz Honor book. It comes as no surprise that I fully expected it to be good.
It’s 1910. In a small cabin situated north of the Arctic Circle, young Sig Andersson sits alongside his father’s frozen body, wondering how he could have died the way he did, falling through a weak-spot in the iced lake when he should have known better than that. He is waiting for his sister and stepmother to come back from the main town nearby with help, when there is a knock at the door. It is a stranger, a Gunther Wolff, who claims to have searched Sig’s father for years and who is convinced that the dead man stole his gold ten years ago. Despite Sig’s proclamations that there is no gold – as their poverty proves – Wolff will not leave until he has it, by any means necessary. Sig can only think of one way to protect himself- his father’s most prized possession, an old Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom. If only he could get to it…and then his sister comes back and she is all alone.
Flashbacks set 11 years earlier are interspersed throughout. They fill us in about Sig’s parents’ lives in Nome, a small settlement of gold miners in Alaska where they hope to change their lot in life. His father Einar becomes an assay clerk for the mining company and this is how he meets Wolff, a local troublemaker. This is when tragedy strikes – where this story has truly begun.
There is an economy of language in Revolver that fits beautifully with this stark tale. There are no unnecessary lines as though more is a luxury this story cannot afford just like more cannot be afforded by Sig’s family. Their meagre existence in the wilderness of the Arctic is endured in the hopes of a better life one day. The setting is equally bleak: the barren landscape, the deep cold, the utter desolation and isolation of the extreme North are felt at every single turn of page. But for all of that, there is never a sense of desperation: Sig’s memories of his parents are a mixture of stern parenting and harsh love and the flashbacks describe a family who tries to do better, the only way they can. Some of these memories include Sig’s father’s love for the Colt and the beauty of its mechanics and Sig’s mother’s questioning of that very love – how can someone love a Gun, a thing that is meant to hurt others?
That economy of language coupled with the shortness of this book, create a first impression that Revolver is a simple, straightforward tale. Therein lies the brilliance of this story: that it is deceptively simple and the measure of its true complexity only becomes really clear when the story ends. There is no wasted moment in Revolver: the memory of the day long gone when a boy shoots a gun is as important as the small detail of a father’s oily hair. The storytelling is brilliant not only in that way but also how it combines past and present and how the characters are characters are utterly clever in a way that is never clearly announced to the reader. This story is therefore, a triumph of showing versus telling.
Last but not least there is the main theme of this story: the question of how one boy comes to age and how does he do that by being true to each of his parent’s truths – different as they are – and at the same time finding his own truth somewhere in between. This is a story about the harsh reality of the North, about gold mining and the terrible consequences of putting faith in passing dreams, about poverty and desperation and wanting to do better for one’s family, about obsession and thoughtless violence. But above all, it is a story about a young boy and the choice he has to make.
As I said before, I expected this book to be good. But I kinda hoped it would be awesome. It was.