Peter Geye reading with Joseph Boyden at the Charles W. Stockey Centre
Fall – cool nights and early mornings, lovely warm days – and in the world of publishing and bookselling it is the season when most of the years new books are released, when literary awards are celebrated and literary readings take place. In Parry Sound we begin the season with a reading at the Charles W. Stockey Centre by Joseph Boyden and Peter Geye on Thursday 19 September at 7:30 pm, followed by a reading by Noah Richler on Wednesday 16 October. The season wraps up as usual with the International Festival of Authors on Wednesday 23 October with readings by Lewis DeSoto, Alexander Maksik, Nicole Lundrigan and Janet E. Cameron.
Joseph Boyden’s new book The Orenda was published this week – it is one of the best books you’ll read this year. I will write more about Joseph Boyden and The Orenda next week. Today I want to talk about Peter Geye, who will join Joseph on the stage, and about Peter’s books Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road.
Peter Geye is a young writer who grew up in Minnesota, although he left to do his Master of Fine Arts Degree at the University of New Orleans where Joseph Boyden was his teacher. When you look at a map of the Great Lakes – Duluth, Minnesota on the far end of Lake Superior, and Georgian Bay you’ll understand that the sense of the water – the lake –is central to his novels, in the same way that it is to Joseph Boyden. We share the same wilderness of the not too distant past, the importance of the lake for transportation and logging, and the fact that the lake somehow becomes part of who we are when we live on a the shore of a great body of water – Lake Superior or Georgian Bay. The landscape of Safe from the Sea and The Lighthouse Road is not too dissimilar to our own – we feel that we know the geography of this place. Both novels could have been taking place right here. Safe From the Sea is set in our own time. It is the story of a young couple, Noah and Natalie, and Noah’s father Olaf Torr. Olaf is unwell, how unwell Noah is not sure but he has come home to see his father. Theirs has been a difficult relationship and they have seldom seen each other in recent years. For Noah and for Olaf this becomes a time to finally talk, before Olaf dies, to put the past in perspective. Both men have matured and both men want reconciliation before it is too late.
Olaf Torr was a man who made his living, and spent his life, on the Great Lakes freighters, on boats moving ore across the lakes. He was a natural sailor, of Norwegian ancestry, and he loved the boats. After surviving the sinking of a ship he worked on, with only two other men, Olaf became a legend among his peers - the man who lived when the Ragnarok went down.
Peter Geye writes about a man who knows the seas, a man who understands celestial navigation, a man with a natural ability to read the weather. Olaf is a man who knew what was coming, and that the captain should have made the decision to retreat sooner than he did, “we knew it was going to be a mean day, but it would’ve taken more than we saw to keep us in port.” Many ships have done the same without the consequences that met the Ragnarok. And like the Ragnarok those that foundered, with loss of life, are the ones we remember.
As Olaf tells his story there is a reference to a poet from Pointe au Baril and a wood engraver from Duluth, “the woodcut showed three abstract figures clutching the icy gunwales of the life boat in portentous, black, fine-lined seas”. Years ago Alan Stein printed a little chap book about the Asia, a ship that went down in Georgian Bay, with small wood engravings – one that could have been the one described in this novel. An uncanny coincidence – when I asked Peter Geye about it he told me that he knows nothing about Pointe au Baril, he simply looked at a map and liked the name!
Safe From the Sea is such a beautiful book to read, each word and sentence carefully crafted – as the blurb by Joseph Boyden on the front of this books says “a tautly written gem”, and it truly is.
Peter Geye’s second novel, The Lighthouse Road, while still on the shore of Lake Superior takes us into the past. We begin in 1896, with a young woman, recently arrived from Norway to work in the lumber camps. She is about to give birth, to a child she names Odd Einar for his grandfather, who will be at the centre of the novel - it is his story. We are in Gunflint, on the shores of Lake Superior, a town full of eccentric characters. There are the men who work in the lumber camps – and others who bring alcohol across the lake from Canada. There is Hosea Grimm, a self taught pharmacist and healer – and his so-called daughter, Rebakah. This is a town full of people who might be considered misfits, but living in a place remote enough from “civilization” that they can make their own strange way in the world. We follow Odd through his childhood and adolescence into the 1920’s when is he is a young man working on the water, building boats, with a desire for independence.
From the 1890’s to the 1950’s we are immersed in another time, with a rich cast of fascinating characters we travel through times of great change, completely captivated by The Lighthouse Road. Again, this is the story that could just as much have taken place in Parry Sound and on Georgian Bay.
Don’t miss the opportunity to meet Peter Geye as he reads from his work, and shares the stage with Joseph Boyden. I guarantee this will be an evening not to be missed.