Its central episode involves a canoe/camping trip into the BWCA that starts in October and finally ends in January. In between a father and son battle the winter elements, get lost, struggle to survive, barely do survive a confrontation with their human enemy, and eventually find their way close enough to home to be rescued by passing snowmobilers.
That central episode is like a story within a story in a story that is really about stories as much as it is about a winter wilderness adventure.
The narrator is Berit Lovig, whose late-life lover, Harry, having lost his memory to the ravages of age, disappears one day into the wilderness and is never found. The year is 1996. Harry’s son, Gus, brings Berit the bad tidings and begins reminiscing about the family history. Berit recounts, not only her own memories from the time she came to Gunflint from Duluth in 1936, but also the ones that Gus shares with her, including that wilderness adventure with his father in 1963 when Gus was just eighteen.
Between the two of them, Berit weaves a tapestry of alternating stories, flashbacks, and memories that follow similar patterns of journeying out, getting lost, experiencing a turning point or moment of truth, then finding one’s way, and eventually arriving home, though, of course, there are those that experience a moment of lies, never do find their way, and are never found, marked only by traces left behind, sometimes in physical form, like the cenotaph erected in honor of Harry, sometimes in someone’s fading memory, sometimes in a story that may or may not bear any resemblance to truth. Disappearance, it seems, is as much a part of the story as being found.
History and memory, fact and fiction, truth and lies, knowledge and false belief are the themes that tie these stories together. Harry has lost his memory; Gus is a high school history teacher. Berit recounts her memories and the local folklore while at the same time turning the building where she had lived and worked with Harry’s estranged mother into a museum of local history. She discovers some letters written by Gus’s great-grandmother to her parents in Norway but never mailed. The letters are historical “records,” but they contain the lie that she had married and borne a son, though everyone “knows” that Harry’s father was a “misbegotten” child of rape in a logging camp. Harry had witnessed a murder, but it is reported as a tragic accident. Harry’s rival and enemy, Charlie, whose own life was based on lies and deceit, disappears in the wilderness and is never found, but Gus knows where Charlie’s “cenotaph,” a pile of bones, can be found.
The word “wilderness” means “place of wild beasts,” and Harry and Gus encounter a few in their wilderness adventure, along with bitter cold, blizzards, huge snow drifts, rushing water, fog, and ice. But men can also be beasts that prey on one another, and they can be found in town as well as in the wilds. Similarly, the domesticated life in town can be a wilderness of stories, some of which pass as history and in which one can get lost in lies and may or may not ever find one’s way to the truth. Such is the challenge of both ordinary people and professional historians.
Wintering is also a coming of age story for Gus, as he pits himself against the elements and ends up saving both himself and his father. For Berit it’s the story of her adopted family, the Eides. Rebecca, who had abandoned her husband and son early on and remained estranged, had hired Berit, at age 16, from Duluth, to live with her and work in the local “apothecary,” the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which Berit later turns into a museum. Rebecca’s son, Harry, also age 16, witnesses his father, Odd, disappear, never to be found, when the ice floe he’s fishing from breaks loose and floats away.. He takes refuge in the apothecary, which also doubles as the town post office, and meets Berit for the first time. It means little to him, but she falls in love, and waits, until after Harry’s divorce, when he shows up at Berit’s door with a bouquet of butterworts, her moment of truth, or, as she calls it, fate. Berit never has children, but, clearly, she is like a surrogate mother to Gus. Thus the novel is a family saga and a story of late life, “winter” romance, as well as a coming of age and a journey into the “heart of darkness” to be found in the wilderness as well as in the human heart and mind.
What is the significance of these stories, some true, some false in the world of the novel, all fictional in the world of the reader? Can “truth” be false? Can recorded history include that which is false and leave out so much that it is hardly the “whole truth”? Can fiction be true? Can stories, which may be factually false, convey a symbolic or metaphorical truth? I have argued so repeatedly in this blog.
The stories in Wintering embody age-old universal myths of trial and quest, initiation, the fall from innocence, death and rebirth (being lost and found), journeys outward, journeys to the self, homecoming, romance, good and evil, crime and punishment, love and hate, truth and falsehood, discovery, and disappearance. We all experience these stories in our own ways and we can thus reenact our own stories as we read these “fictions.”
Historically, Berit’s memories, stories, and artifacts represent the immigrant experience in North America, the leaving of home and family, the journeying out, the encounter with an alien world that can be both sweet and sour, the struggle to survive, the building of a new life, the making of a family legacy, and the creation of a new identity.
Even when these stories are based on lies, they give meaning to our human experience, which is why we love to tell them, to hear them, to read and write them.