The Lighthouse Road
reviewed by ERIN DUFFY

Unbridled Books, 2012

“Some ancient cold had taken root in Thea Eide’s belly, a feeling she’d not yet had but one she knew meant the time was nigh to deliver her baby.” Thus begins Peter Geye’s brilliantly atmospheric The Lighthouse Road, a sweeping multigenerational saga of survival in unforgiving Minnesotan winters. As the story drifts from nineteenth-century transatlantic voyages to underground bootlegging in the 1920s, it becomes increasingly obvious that this ancient cold is both a literal and metaphorical danger. Although the rough edges of rural winters are depicted in blinding detail with fresh, dynamic language, Geye places special emphasis on a seldom-explored topic in historical fiction: the numbing effects of postpartum depression.

The story unfolds nonlinearly, with chapters jumping between the story of Norwegian immigrant Thea, who loves her child with a maternal ferocity that spirals into psychosis, and that of her grown son Odd, whose marriage to the older, sensuous Rebekah fractures as she battles crippling depression and apathy towards their newborn. 

One would think that Odd ought to function as the novel’s central link between such starkly contrasting eras, and he does, but in only the most literal sense. Odd is a physical manifestation of the passage of time, but it is his wife Rebekah who commands the reader’s attention. She was the closest thing young Thea had to a friend upon reaching Minnesota, and helped raise Odd into adulthood following his mother’s untimely death. This connection would ultimately prove to be Rebekah’s undoing: after the birth of her own son by Odd, she relentlessly punishes herself for her self-perceived failures as a mother by comparing herself to the late Thea.

“She was the happiest person I ever saw in those days after you were born,” Rebekah tells her husband in one of the novel’s most wrenching scenes. “The way she felt, that’s how I’m supposed to feel. I’m supposed to be as happy as she was. I couldn’t get to happiness on a train.”

For all of the anecdotes pertaining to bear attacks and smuggling whiskey across state lines, this novel is chiefly about the profound connection between a parent and child. Seldom is such a relationship without complexity, especially in a family as tangled as Odd’s, and it is frankly impossible to discuss these complexities without spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that this family of adoptees—Thea, Rebekah, Odd, and Hosea Grimm, the morally ambiguous apothecary who raised them all—is toxic. They love and manipulate each other in equal measures, with their convoluted efforts to help nearly driving each other to destruction, and male-female familial devotion often harbors incestuous undertones. Nevertheless, the central love story between Odd and Rebekah is tender as it is uncomfortable. It is difficult not to be moved by Rebekah’s isolation, or Odd’s desperation for her to return to her old self.

Geye masterfully weaves a backdrop of the stark, frigid Minnesota wilderness for this richly nuanced family. For all of the tumultuous changes in their lives, the landscape remains fittingly unchanged for the thematic elements at play. Although this story might not be for those with a weak stomach (given the gruesome injuries sustained in a bear attack, or the multitude of explicit medical procedures), it nonetheless manages to leave a lasting impact on readers as the characters battle with their respective broken hearts. With unflinching honesty, Geye shows us that the idea of human survival—whether in remote lakeside cabins, abusive orphanages, Arctic bear dens, or in the throes of mental illness—remains as eternal as the howling winds themselves. 

ERIN DUFFY is a senior at SUNY Geneseo, where she majors in English and serves as creative nonfiction editor of Gandy Dancer. 

The Adirondack Review