Leif Enger

A few years ago, I had an idea for a collection of stories from well-known authors about what they would do and where they would go, if they could go back in time. The subject has fascinated me since I was a boy. I received a lot of support, encouragement and contributions from an impressive array of writers. Unfortunately, the idea didn't seem as grand to the publishers to whom I presented it (I know, crazy, right?), so after awhile, I put the project on the back burner and moved on to other things. Well, now in addition to my focus on what it's like being a publisher's representative--highlighting the fine independent bookstores of the South and doing features on well-known authors and booksellers--I've decided to publish those "back in time" stories in my blog. You will be impressed by each writer's talent and imagination.

My first subject is the beloved Grove/Atlantic author of Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that those two books are on many, many readers most favorite's lists (I know they're on mine).

In addition to publishing his "time" story, I recently asked him a few questions about himself:

Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.

We live on a fifty-acre farm 90 miles west of Duluth. Winter is crystalline and almost without end, but then it ends and outside the window is a hayfield with ten thousand dragonflies scooping around, also lightning bugs after dark.

Where were you living when you were 7 years old?

Small town of Osakis, central Minnesota - my parents still reside there, so I visit often. It was a lovely place to grow up, on the shore of Lake Osakis, Home of the Big Walleyes. If you knew which plowed fields to walk in after spring rains, you could usually find an arrowhead or two, and once I picked up an Indian pipe carved from red stone in the shallows of Miller Bay.

Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
My favorite teacher was Mrs. Johnson - third grade - who still lives in Osakis, and who told me a few months ago I should really just call her LaRayne, like everyone else does. She never lost her temper with us, read great stories aloud every day after lunch, and had infallible instincts for what might fire us up. We all wrote poetry about what we liked best, dinosaurs, baseball, fishing, and she gathered up our poems into a huge scrapbook which I have to this day. One of the girls wrote a poem to Mrs. Johnson herself which included the line You are almost like a mother to us. As an eight-year-old boy that embarrassed me deeply, but I always knew it was true.

Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?
Many of them. Can we count Classics Illustrated? Because those 12-cent comics with their often terrible drawings made me understand the joys inherent in seagoing adventure (Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) outlaw caves (Tom Sawyer, where they get to keep the money) and living in America instead of England (all of Dickens). Also, Last of the Mohicans made me determined to be an Indian with a blue tattoo, a dream recently & bitterly surrendered. A little later the big influence was a 1950s Claire Huchet Bishop story called The Big Loop, about a French boy growing up in post-war poverty who wants heart and soul to race in the Tour de France. My brother Lin (an early champion of ten-speed bikes in Osakis) got hold of this book which was fuel for us both with its scrawny underdog and hateful chiseled villain. More than anything I wanted to be the brave kid in those pen & ink illustrations. Here is one of them:

Do you have a favorite children’s book?
Winnie the Pooh, hands down, although that final chapter where Christopher Robin grows up is still too sad to read.

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
I came late to good manners and once told a visiting family, who had just walked into our house carrying luggage for a week’s stay, “We didn’t want you to come.” Immediately my arm was yanked backward and I was dragged down the hall to my room, where I shouted, in outrage, through the closed door, “But I was only telling the truth!”

Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
Take your time, read widely, listen more than you talk, make your own bread (but buy cheese), see a few oceans if you can.

How did you meet your wife? How did your first date go?
Freshman year of college there’s a stunning girl (w/obvious boyfriend) in the cafeteria. Another league entirely. The sight of her stopped my hearing for several minutes. I was too dumbstruck not to give it a try. Turned out the boyfriend was already fading, our first date was a campus screening of Taxi Driver, somehow we weathered this and went back the next week for A Clockwork Orange. You correctly discern I had the judgment of a canned ham yet here we still are, a thirty-year story with maybe a few twists still to come.

Will your legions of fans get to read another book from you any time soon? (Sorry, you know I had to ask)

I’m on the home stretch of a long tale about a boy in a little shipwreck of a town on the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s full of hard weather and villainy and strange kites flown from cliffs, with a lovestruck narrator and a modern-day Penelope, so I hope to bring it home in a satisfying way

Not satisfied with writing treasured books, Leif is also an avid photographer and movie maker. He joined the Vimeo community just over four years ago and has contributed some outstanding films. Here is one of his (and my) favorites entitled


Now, here is Leif's answer to the question:


to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,

be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,

actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,

meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.

When would you go?

Where would you go?

Who would you want to meet?

And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?


It cheers me up every day that Mom and Dad, a pair of North Dakotans with the Great Depression always in the next room, gave me the Christian name of a Norse sailor born a thousand years earlier.  From Dust Bowl grit to North Sea spray: how’s that for hope and change? A name, after all, is your parents’ first gift to you – their design for your future, a tacit instruction as to what sort of person you should be. (Not to make too much of this, it’s also true my parents alliterated their children’s names, and by the time I arrived there was a shortage of interesting Ls.)  

Still, Leif Ericson was one of my first real heroes, and the oldest attic in my brain is lit by the tart and moody lithographs of Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire, whose story-book Leif the Lucky was read aloud to me six hundred times before I could walk. Have you seen that book?  Here is Leif as a boy: solid and blond in his scarlet wool tunic, feet braced for balance on the deck of his father’s ship, shading his eyes against the Snowstorm Sea.  Leif wears a sheath-knife on a lanyard round his neck and the knife and his hair snap in the gale.  How at home he looks on his father’s boat – and what a boat, with its curling tail and icy dragon prow. Also, what a father! Straight off we meet the fiery outlaw known as Erik the Red, banished from both Norway and Iceland for his fearsome temper and his “hands as red as his beard.”  This is the man Leif must live up to, but guess what: he doesn’t look worried about it.  He’s the youngest of three boys, the others being Torstein and Torvald – no doubt they absorbed the worst of Erik’s temper, always the job of elder sons. 

That we strive to live up to our names is a doubtful proposition -- if that were the case I would’ve done a brave thing by now.  But as a young Leif I did lay claim to certain traits that seemed to me a birthright from the great Norseman.  For starters, I assumed that as the baby of the family I was much wanted and more or less a commodity to be enjoyed.  Just as the other Leif was welcomed into his family (“We will let him live,” Erik the Red is supposed to have said, deeply pleased with the lusty infant) so I was taken everywhere, and read to, and played with, by a father who hit baseballs to his sons every night without fail and a mother who baked rolls three times a week. What better start for a confident Viking?  Then there was the nickname: the Lucky. The truth is I didn’t know anyone luckier than me. Do you need an example? I was born on February 14.  Every year they threw a party at school, with treats and cards for everyone. Only vaguely did I understand that all those sugar cookies weren’t baked on my account.

If it were handed to me, then, this ticket to anywhere, anytime, I’d leap to the day Leif bought the boat that would take him to the New World. He was in Greenland then and feeling restless. Probably he’d been restless for a while. Even today most people understand the thing to do about restlessness is to buy a boat. Happily, there was a good one on the market. 

It belonged to an old friend of Erik’s named Bjarni Herolfsson. Ten years earlier, around 990 AD, Bjarni had been voyaging from Iceland to Greenland -- apparently he was racing to catch up with his vacationing father who’d sailed to Greenland ahead of him.  In any case a storm developed and blew Bjarni’s ship off course. Nordic stoicism aside there was absolutely consternation, fear, men muttering in their drenched furs. When the skies lifted days later there rose up a land that didn’t match any description of Greenland Bjarni had ever heard. Trees swayed in the mild winds; luminous hills rose in the distance. His sailors were enchanted and wanted to go ashore, but Bjarni was tetchy and refused. No unscheduled stops for Bjarni!  “Dad needs me in Greenland right now,” he may have said, facing down his exasperated crew. “Don’t you know we are late already?”

Could Bjarni have guessed that his thanks for this restraint and remarkable sense of familial duty would be years of Viking mockery? Did he want to be called Bjarni the Timid?  But he was undeterred.  Putting temptation astern they set course for Greenland.  In fairness, even after reaching Greenland and telling his story, no one else ventured out to try completing Bjarni’s discovery for a full ten years -- during which Leif was growing up as fast as he could manage.  

Here’s the thing about buying a boat: on the day you do it, anything is possible. By the time Bjarni decided to sell, Leif had probably heard six hundred times about the luminous hillsides and the swaying trees. He was dreaming of it. He’d grown up sailing with Erik the Red, so not much scared him. He’d had loads of time to make a plan, and his plan was to round up some sailors and head north and west until he found the intoxicating land Bjarni had seen and decided not to explore. The boat had been there already -- it had done everything but land on the beach.  I’m picturing the magnetic attraction this little ship and its history had for Erik’s son, Leif.  He was writing history already.  He was walking the deck of a book that had almost been written, then been thought better of and scratched out.  I’d go back if I could and watch the two men watching each other: the one who turned back, and the one aching to go.

That ache is something else I claimed, another piece of birthright.  It is now September and I’m writing this aboard my own boat on the inland sea of Lake Superior.  Mine is a more modest craft than Leif’s, and my ambitions are less than his as well; but on the day we bought it, Robin and I, we looked at each other and said, This one’s tasted salt. This one’s gone a long way already, and could go a long way still.  It seems likely Leif uttered something similar the day he and Bjarni made their bargain.  Not out loud -- out loud he probably worried about deck rot and the state of the rigging.  And then he made his cautious offer.  And Bjarni put out his hand. 

And suppose he hadn’t?  Suppose Bjarni Herolfssson had decided at that point to have another go himself?  I’m lucky he didn’t. Because then Leif might’ve stayed home, and the Daulaires might’ve done lithos for a book called Bjarni the Bold. And I would be a guy named Louis writing about my wish to go back in time and spend a long evening in the company of the greatest trumpet player of the 20th century.  

Thanks, Leif, for being a part of this project and for giving such a fantastic answer. 
I can't wait for your next book!


Nice post -- I liked both of these very different books very much.

Were your ears burning yesterday? Mike Katz was making his sales call yesterday and your name came up. Hope I see you next week in Asheville.
Lin Salisbury said…
Love Leif’s writing... even this. He’s not careless with his answer, but clever. I’ve gathered some of his words and jotted them in a notebook as a reminder to not use the obvious, easy words that I’ve worn thin. Cannot wait for his new book.
Peggy Dover said…
I savored each response, since they read like lines from his story. Delighted the new tale is a long one--a meadow to roll through.

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