I worked with Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, a quiet novel about life in WWII Norway. I didn't like the book at first. It is a very meditative and contemplative book, and I like a little more action to drive a storyline. However, as I explored the novel through free-associative art projects, I learned to recognize and understand the tensions caused by the secrecy and need that underlie the plot.
I started by creating a collage of things I associated with Norway. I was drawn to ancient Viking images, and felt compelled to contrast the war-like Vikings of old with the soldiers who fought the Nazis. I layered tissue-paper soaked with glue over the ancient images as a way of conveying how they were images from the past, seen through a veil.
I brought together Old Germanic epic poetry about fathers and sons, and linked it to the father-son relationships in the book. Disappointment, secrecy, lies-these were the patterns that emerged.
I played with quick watercolor reactions to the story. Everything was shrouded in mist, in secrecy. Even the mountains of Norway weren't able to emerge from the thickening fogs.
I made a soundtrack of haunting, lyrical music that was written in the concentration camps. In a presentation for the class, I blended it with images of travel posters for Norway--the country itself was trying to hide the tragedy of the war from the rest of the world. Secrets layered on secrets. As my reflection below states, I ended up in a very different place then when I started reading the book, and an appreciation for the quiet strength of a novel that I might earlier have placed back on the shelf without thinking about it again.
These are only a few pages from the work I did that semester; the rest are other side explorations. The experience of immersing myself in the investigation of a novel was powerful. This year, I am doing a group commonplace book with my students as we read The Crucible and study the way that drama is used to interpret historical events according to a certain bias. I'm curious to see what memories and connections they build as they participate in this kind of subtle and sometimes subconscious exploration.