Out Stealing Horses (3), or All the Pretty Paintings

Out Stealing Horses is dotted with many gorgeous scenes. They stand out on their own like luminous paintings. One of my favorite scenes occurs early in the book, part of Trond’s first extended flashback. It’s 1948. He and his best friend Jon are out stealing horses, basically taking them for a joy ride. After taking a nasty spill from a horse running at full tilt, Trond awakens to a world awash in beauty. He and Jon are walking home through the forest when Jon asks Trond if he wants to see something amazing. Trond says yes, and they clamber up a tree.         

A bird’s nest hung down from the fork, it was like a deep bowl or almost an ice cream cone…. And it did not hang. It hovered. 

“It’s the goldcrest,” said Jon in a low voice…. 

It made me dizzy to see and to think that in just a few weeks this tiny oval would be transformed into a living bird with wings that could take off from the high branches and dive down and yet never hit the ground but with will and instinct shoot upwards and nullify the force of gravity…. 

“Christ,” I said. “It’s weird that something so little can come alive and just fly away….” 

But something happened at that moment that I had now way of understanding, for when I raised my eyes and looked up at Jon’s face it was strained and totally white…, and he looked me straight in the eye as if he had never seen me before, and for once he did not squint, and his pupils were big and black. And then he opened his hand and dropped the egg. It fell along the trunk…, and I saw it hit one of the branches further down and break and dissolve into little pale fragments that swirled around on all sides, and they fell like snowflakes, almost weightless, and gently drifted away. 

When I first read this, Jon’s cruelty struck me as entirely gratuitous, symbolic perhaps of the larger and equally insane violence that was convulsing Europe during World War II. On a subsequent read, however, I discovered a very elegant interpretation, which I’m sure has already occurred to many fine readers.

In 1942, Trond’s father moves into a cabin on the border of Sweden, where he runs films and manuscripts across the border for the Norwegian resistance against the German occupation. Trond’s father meets Jon’s family, his father and mother, and their three children: Jon and the two twins, Lars and Odd. 

Jon will be Trond’s best friend in just a few years. 

From 1942 to 1944, Trond’s father and Jon’s mother spend a lot of time together. Jon, who would have been 9-, 10-, and 11-years old, respectively, is old enough to sense their growing intimacy, and to smart painfully under it, as well. It’s very likely that Jon hates Trond’s father, seeing him as a threat and an invader. 

Indeed, Trond will later tell us that Jon “would never come inside [the house], maybe because of my father. He never spoke to my father. Never said hello to him. Just looked down when they passed each other on the way to the shop.”  

Fast forward a few years. 

In 1948, Trond, 15, and his father visit the cabin for the summer. Trond and Jon become best friends. They delight in the natural world, the river and the forest, and steal horses for the thrill of it. Despite the fact that they’re best friends, Jon’s feelings for Trond are very complicated. After all, Trond is the son of the man he despises. So Jon likes his best friend a lot, but he hates him, too. Because ambivalence loves nothing better than a good disguise, Jon slyly kills the thing that hurts Trond the most.


One Response to Out Stealing Horses (3), or All the Pretty Paintings

  1. megan says:

    a gorgeous book. sparse, yet elegant.

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