Someone handed me this book, signed by the author, at my retirement party back in January of 2019. Not particularly interested in reading what looked to be a self-published or vanity published religious novel, I placed it on my “to read” stack and it sat there until this past weekend. Looking for something short and to the point to read while I sat in the autumn sun and hoped for rain (our river, the Cloquet, is still very low), I was pleasantly surprised to find a well written, can’t-put-it-down regional novel that, while there are elements of faith within its pages, is not preachy in the least.
The story is really two stories in one. There is the contemporary tale of Bob Sorenson skiing a Minnesota state trail in the dark with only stars and meteorites to guide his way towards waiting high school pals (the men are all middle-aged by the time the story unfolds) until he stumbles upon tragedy. I won’t spoil the plot by giving away what Bob encounters on the prairie other than to say his discovery leads to revelations about himself that Bob was, as he skied in the dark, struggling to uncover and address.
There’s an additional plot line, essentially a series of flashbacks to Bob’s youth and time spent fishing with both his father and his uncle. The title of the book reflects Bob’s love for and connection to Uncle Art and the kind, yet manly way Art taught the younger version of Bob life lessons centered around a family cabin on Little Hanging Horn Lake near Barnum. That’s where Bob grew up. With Uncle Art at the helm of an old, wide-beamed wooden row boat powered by an ancient three-horse two-stroke, the older man made it a point to guide his young nephew in search of sunfish for the frying pan, all the while teaching Bob life lessons. It’s those glimpses of wisdom that manifest to middle-aged Bob as he skies through the dark, eery night.
This is not high-brow literature. The language that Swanson uses to tell is simple, succinct, and direct. But there was, despite the simplicity of art and story, enough “meat” to compel me to devour this slender volume (less than 190 pages in trade paperback) in one sitting. That says a lot for the power of well-crafted prose that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. In the Hands will not likely make any bestseller lists nor achieve any lasting fame. It will not change your life or cause you to ponder your existence beyond, perhaps, kindling your own reminiscences of youth. But it was a welcome surprise to find a regional author who tells a tale in such terse, fine, and complete fashion.
My only criticism has to do with the fact that there are a number of layout and printing issues in the copy I received. On page 10, there’s an entire narrative paragraph printed in bold for no apparent reason. Then, at the conclusion of the story (p. 186), the publisher/vanity press/editor (don’t know who made the decision) inexplicably placed “Author’s Notes” on the same page as the tale’s conclusion rather than placing those notes in a separate section of the book. Not major issues and I didn’t find more than a handful of other typos or grammatical errors in what was otherwise a very enjoyable read. Having now published 13 books on my own, some with major flaws, others with only a typo here or there, I can let such small insults to my readerly eye be. They are, in the face of a pretty darn good yarn, inconsequential.
4 stars out of 5. This would be a great book club selection for a men’s book club (of which there are so very few!)