Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
Initially Peter Geye’s Safe from the Sea reads as a classic family drama. Olaf Torr is dying and reaches out to his estranged son Noah, gruffly asking if he will come home. There is no intention for a grand family reunion; Olaf is loathe to admit the seriousness of his illness and Noah travels to his father's cabin in Northern Minnesota more out of shock that his father called at all rather than any long standing dream of reconnection. There have been years of misunderstandings between Olaf and his children and in the wake of a marriage that went bad, the death of their mother, and a lifetime of emotional separation, this visit seems to be all about doing the right thing. But Geye manages a small miracle with Safe from the Sea -- he creates something about fathers and sons and men and work that is both simple and stunning. This is a trip that is wholly American and gripping. It made me long for my own father, dead many years now, simply so I could send it his way and say “Read this; I promise you’ll love it.”
The heart of the Torr family’s saga is the tragic sinking of the Ragnarøk, a Lake Superior ore ship lost in 1967. Olaf was an officer onboard and one of only three survivors. As Noah settles into his father’s life and aids him in gathering wood, running errands and providing small comforts to what is obviously a shortened future, he asks about the sinking and Olaf, surprisingly, answers.
You can not read about the Ragnarøk without thinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, easily the most famous historic Great Lakes sinking. It would largely be unknown beyond the region if not for Gordon Lightfoot’s enduring song of the tragedy, something that Geyes addressed in a recent Book Notes post at Largehearted Boy:
I suspect that the only thing most people know about Great Lakes shipwrecks come from this song. It tells the story of the most famous maritime disaster in Lake Superior history. The Edmund Fitzgerald is consciously absent from Safe from the Sea because it casts such a large shadow, but her story is in every line of the book. And the song is just fantastic. Listen to the lyrics -- if you can get past the dirge -- they're poetry.
Olaf’s story is much more than that of the sinking however, it is about how surviving can affect a man in ways he never anticipated or knows how to explain. There was no secret to what happened on the Ragnarøk; this is not the story of a cover-up or lingering guilt over failures of manhood at critical junctures. Lake Superior is a scary place in the winter and sometimes you can be the biggest and best and still things go wrong, and both Geye and his characters understand this. But what happened afterwards, after Olaf returned home, was preventable. The drinking, the silence, the crumbling marriage, all of those are things he feels guilty for now but can not change. He can only tell Noah why they happened and the why means telling about what took place that dreadful winter night on the lake.
Noah started to say he was sorry but Olaf interrupted him. “Actually it wasn’t over.” He leaned over the coffee table, traced a line from the black X off Isle Royale to Hat Point. He traced it back. After a few minutes Olaf looked at Noah again. “For most of your life I’ve used that night as an excuse. Not because I wanted or needed one but because I had no control over what it did to me. I should have. Hard as it would’ve been, I should have beaten it.”
At that moment, Geye’s work became pure poetry to me because he shows with such eloquence and honesty how we try and fail to be better; how men work and that work defines them; how surviving can mean sometimes that you spend the rest of your life drowning. It’s beautiful how Geye achieves this without flash and sparks, without laying the drama on thickly. Geye sees the great story in the quiet; he sees the epic nature of what comes after the crash and the roars and the miracle; the way that all the years later can somehow be more than even that. And because he is an excellent writer, he is able to share that vision with us.
It should be noted that Geye was born and raised in Minneapolis and lives there still; clearly he is familiar with the Northern shore and the significance of the Great Lakes on the region. His descriptions of the woods and the water, the city of Duluth, by the way in which Noah sees his native city and recognizes it (“I resemble this place. And then, my father, he was inhabited by it.”), all make the reader aware that this is a story of place as much as people, that it could not live in another setting. And the relationships he calls up, both between Noah and his sister and, more troubling, with his wife, are all familiar and yet also, to a certain degree, part of the same place because Noah is so firmly entrenched in Minnesota regardless of his current home in Boston. This is how Geye makes the book also about what home means and how you can, surprisingly, go back. You just have to know the right things to ask when you return there and you have to be willing to listen for the answers and respect them, no matter how difficult, when they come.
Safe from the Sea is small in scope but substantial, on all levels, in its impact. It is a thing of beauty; a lesson in the ineffable power of story to take us out of ourselves and bring us to a place we never knew but recognize all the same.
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye