‘Trek by father and son’

The Boy and the Mountain: A Father, His Son, and a Journey of Discovery 
By Torbjørn Ekelund (Translated by Becky L. Crook)

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2023
$27.95  /  9781771645096

Reviewed by Ron Dart

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The Boy and the Mountain was originally published in Norwegian in 2017 and translated into English in 2023. Ekelund has, thus far, published two fine books that weave, thoughtfully and delicately together, the layered relationship between humans and nature: In Praise of Paths and A Year in the Woods. There is a meditative approach that shapes and defines Ekelund’s writing style and such a tendency is front and centre in The Boy and the Mountain.

There are a variety of suggestive layers at work in The Boy and the Mountain and the interweaving of such layers makes this missive inviting and evocative. There is the story of a young child (six years of age) that wandered from his mother in mountainous backcountry in southern Norway (near Kongsberg) in the Skrim area, lost his way and was found dead—such was the fate of Hans Torske when he disappeared July 8, 1894 and was found July 29, 1895. It is this mysterious death of Hans that is constantly, like a stream, running through the mind of Ekeland as he takes to the same area with his son (August) for a father and son trek to, in principle, the summit of Styggemann mountain. But, what is the significance of mother and son taking to the backcountry, father in the city, Hans innocently leaving mother, then disappearing, lost in the woods, disoriented, many in the area searching from him, when found a year later dead? This is certainly a tale of poorly prepared trips and treks into nature, a child acting in a spontaneous and creative manner, nature quite indifferent to such a choice, no sense of how to orient or find his way back to his mother, then being lost and nature taking its inevitable toll—certainly no nature romanticism, those unprepared and unaware often victims of nature’s ways and means. So, the tale of Hans is the warning and backdrop to the hike of father and son.

Torbjørn Ekelund. Photo Jørn H. Moen

The extensive planning by Torbjørn for the trip with August is in obvious contrast to the journey of Hans and his mother, the same area visited but the preparations for such a trip almost the opposite—poorly prepared versus overly prepared.  The almost step by step trip and trek by father and son in the footsteps of the memory of Hans makes for a compelling read—father notes, often, the comments and actions of son, moments of being discouraged (heavy rain storms, sleeping on porches, unanticipated weather conditions, wet bogs, long and demanding trips to the summit) and the sheer energy and joy of taking into the wild, summit accomplished, longer route for a return not welcomed well, longing to return home, post summit achieved the immediate goal. Torbjørn not only deftly describes his son’s varied moods but also his own observations of both ever changing landscape and inner terrain (or to give a nod to Hopkins, “inscape”). The planned route is well planned, perhaps too much carried for the short trip (knapsack heavy) but the always unexpected weather is the persistent and consistent variable. The death of young Hans was the result of no planning, not being with another, and a weather system that took its toll, such a reality the brooding backdrop in the book.

The contrast, therefore, between two types of relatively benign trips far from an urban centre make for an instructive analogy to life itself—wandering far from others into unknown places and unanticipated life weather systems can bring tragic consequences. Even with the best of planning, though, being attentive and alert, changing course when needed is part of the ability to navigate through nature and life—such is the parabolic nature of The Boy and the Mountain. But there is yet more to this meditative exercise into meaning.                

Father and son on a grand adventure

The “Journey of Discovery” is about a father understanding his son better and, hopefully, a son understanding his father better in a setting which is not predictable nor secure—setting up tents, sleeping as rain soaks much, what to eat when, what pace is best for both, energy conserved and not erratically dissipated—such are lessons learned when the more predictable life in the city or cabins in the country are not the safe, secure, and reliable places to go to when nature threatens on the all too human journey. There are also reflections on geology, age of the earth, environmental concerns, quotes from John Muir, obvious returns to the human-nature symbiotic relationship and the tragic consequences when this is not realized. There are a few black-and-white photographs of the mountains, terrain and huts on the journey, a celebrative final photo of Torbjørn and August, hands raised, on the summit hut, mission accomplished.

Torbjørn and August at the summit hut

The finale in the book, “About the Work on this Book”, raised the ever-troubling question about how we interpret a tragedy when witnesses are nil, speculation varied, and layered causes unknown. What is the real story of Hans Torske’s death? This question is a persistent and continual one in The Boy and the Mountain. Is the boy on the mountain the now dead Hans or August (so well and faithfully guarded by his father)? And the mountain? Silent! All the potential witnesses (and those who would have tried to find Hans) are dead also. How are we to interpret history when much is shrouded in mountain mist and white out conditions? How can we prevent tragedies from recycling and replaying themselves? Such are some of the lingering thoughts that are left with us we sit with book on lap and allow the well told tale to massage our mind and imagination.

I was drawn to this book for the simple reason I lived in Norway in the early 1970s in both Bodo and with the Mountain Sami in Kautokeino. This was a period of time when the pioneer of deep ecology, Arne Naess, was opposing large scale Norwegian development projects that would have a negative impact on the Sami. The Boy and the Mountain was set in a mountainous section of southern Norway in which the rock boulders remind the curious of troll games and battles fought for territory against opponents, Norwegian myth, science and history layered with competing interpretive versions. We are, also, offered brisk reads of significant phases of Norwegian culture and reasons for place names in an inviting manner. Needless to say, The Boy and the Mountain is a deceptively simple read and, I suspect, each read will ask of each of us, parent and child, how we prepare and journey with those we love and the implications of not being alert and attentive to ourselves and others on the pilgrimage through time.

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Ron Dart

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. He has published 40 books including Erasmus: Wild Bird (Create Space, 2017) and The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016). Editor’s note: Ron Dart has recently reviewed books by Jan Zwicky, Jan Zwicky & Robert V. Moody, D.L. (Donna) Stephen, Elizabeth MayStephen Hui (Destination Hikes), Stephen Hui (105 Hikes) for The British Columbia Review. He has also contributed four essays: Canadian mountain culture and mountaineering, From Jalna to Timber Baron: Reflections on the life of H.R. MacMillan, Roderick Haig-Brown & Al Purdy, and Save Swiss Edelweiss Village to The BC Review. 

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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