I grew up on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. I still have some nebulous, albeit abstractly pleasant, memories of making the three and a half hour drive north with my dad and grandfather in the late seventies to go freshwater smelting along the Lake Superior coastline. If you tried to describe smelting to someone who had never done it, it would surely sound like some type of insanity - you wait until the coldest part of the night (the water’s a handful of degrees above freezing), unroll a large net, peer into the water with a flashlight for fish the size of your fingers, and drag the waters along the coastline while the smelt make their spring migration to their spawning streams. We were never out there alone - the coastline was alive with the subdued thumping of Willie Nelson songs, the quiet crackle of bonfires, and you could smell the beer in the air. All around us, at a distance, was the vast, otherworldly darkness of the timber. Large smelt are only about seven inches long, so it takes a bunch to feed a family of six - but that’s neither here nor there because a good run will bring up a net full of the tiny, flipping fish. In the end, we’d sleep away the drive home, and ate beer battered smelt for a few days and freeze the rest for other meals, firmly convinced that there’s nothing so indescribably delicious as eating right out of nature’s hand.
Over the years, pretty much everything in this heavily forested part of the world has changed, except, perhaps, the seemingly limitless expanse and potential ferocity of its wilderness, and I’ve become convinced that there aren’t very many writers who have captured it in its beautiful and violent fullness as well as Peter Geye has in his work. I’ve felt the razor coldness of the north shore air, smelled the heady greenness of its forests, and heard the ice snap and pop like gunshots beneath my feet. This landscape is reborn, and yet remains true, in Geye’s work, and when his new book, Wintering, hits the bookstore shelves next month, it’s truly cause for celebration on many levels.
First and foremost, readers will find, in Peter Geye, an author who creates with both brutality and deep sensitivity, his work having the rocky edges of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but who’s characters have, also, an uncommon psychological depth, some of which is laid bare before his readers and some of which is felt, almost as intuition. Make no mistake. This is truly a gift. It’s one thing to explain in your work what your characters think; it’s another thing altogether to write in such a way that your readers can actually feel what what they’re thinking. In his haunting previous work, The Lighthouse Road, Geye explores the diaphanous frontier between the ferocious landscape of the Minnesota northwoods and the psychology of its population, directing his readers into the darkened wilderness behind the eyes of each of his characters. Delightfully, this is not an anomaly unique to his second book, but is, indeed, the driving force of his new novel, Wintering, and Geye knows these characters - these families - intimately because they are the descendants of the characters who populated his previous book.
Wintering opens with Gustav (Gus) Eide, grandson of The Lighthouse Road’s Odd Eide, visiting close family friend (and narrator) Berit Lovig, His aged and ailing father, Harry, it seems, has disappeared into the frozen wilderness just outside of town, presumably for the final time. The atmosphere is bittersweet, and over the course of ensuing visits to Berit’s home, Gus begins to gradually disclose the yet-untold account of his father’s previous disappearance - one that took place some thirty years earlier - when Harry and a then eighteen year old Gus left Gunflint with a reconstructed map, setting out to cross seemingly immeasurable tracts of woodland to find, and “winter” at, the mythic Fort le Croix, as did French-Canadian voyageurs generations earlier. But Harry has not been altogether honest with his son, and, unlike my considerably gentler interactions with this landscape, what begins for Gus as a journey seemingly meant to repair their tenuous relationship turns into nothing less than a savage struggle for survival,
Aside from being a significant new work of Midwestern literature, Wintering is also a victory, I would suggest, for writers everywhere who are dedicated to their craft. Peter Geye’s first two books, Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road are both beautifully composed novels published by a small, literary-minded press called Unbridled Books, whom discriminating readers would do well to seek out . As an observer of the publishing world, I can’t help but to feel, when a hard-working and talented writer like Geye is picked up by a major publisher of literary fiction like Alfred A. Knopf, that all of the industry’s mechanisms are operating just the way they should be.