Book review: “Fast Hands” shows

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Rosalie Grosch
Arden Hills, Minn.

My husband and I are in a writing group. From the beginning our mentor has told us when we write we should show, not tell. John Pappenheimer, author of Fast Hands, does this convincingly when he introduces us to 16-year-old Gus Pedersen, a gifted percussionist who plays the spoons whenever he gets a chance. From the first paragraph in this delightful novel we are drawn into the life of young Gus, who learns about himself when he is thrust into the wild and stormy life of the fishermen in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Gus does not go to Alaska by choice. He meets a fascinating girl while traveling on a bus. Having never met someone so adventuresome, Gus jokingly tries to impress her by saying he owns a yacht in the marina. “Take me aboard, Commodore,” she says.

Gus picks the lock and the two of them explore the yacht. Miss Zorro (as he calls her, not knowing her name) moves around the yacht as if she owns it, “burrowing through the drawers and drinking the booze.”

Unfortunately, Gus is the one held responsible. When his attorney asks how he got into the yacht, Gus explains that he learned to pick locks from his mother’s latest boyfriend. The author shows, in few words, what life for Gus and his mother must be like.

The attorney for Gus tries to find an alternative to juvenile detention when he asks Mom if there isn’t someone who could make sure he stays out of trouble. She tells him about her two brothers she hasn’t seen for 17 years, fishermen in Alaska.

With every well-written sentence we are drawn into the family that Gus has never really known. Grandpa’s old beat up suitcase carries his history and his rugged, hard fighting life as a fisherman and boxer. Now Gus packs that same suitcase for his trip north. With Gus we are introduced to the stoic, slow-speaking Norwegian fishermen on the boat, and the story unravels as Gus grows up by learning about life the hard way.

On the way to Alaska Gus meets Claire, a survivor with her own secret story to tell. Though he is much younger than Claire, Gus finds himself drawn to her emotionally.

The author draws on his own experiences on Alaskan fishing boats as we live through the hardships Gus endures, tossed about on the rough seas. Many times Gus wants to give up, but something keeps drawing him back to the men and the work. Uncle Sven’s non-judgmental understanding of Gus’s pain helps him realize that he isn’t the only one suffering. He sees himself in a new way and begins to take on things much more difficult than he ever could have imagined.

Other personalities come to life in this story. Gus is part of the reconciliation between Uncle Fridtjof and his brother, Sven, alienated for many years. But Claire’s history leaves us hanging. What is it about her that reminds the brothers of a girlfriend they had known years before?

Will, a close friend, develops a romantic relationship with Claire, a relationship Gus wanted for himself. Claire tells Gus that she needs to continue her independent wandering. Will is off on a new adventure.

Gus returns to high school after his sentence at sea. Others, seeing a changed Gus, tease and make fun of him. Knowing with his new boxing skills he could stop everything with a punch, Gus turns away. The grown-up Gus shows us he has learned that friendship and forgiveness walk hand in hand.

Rosalie Grangaard Grosch was born into a Norwegian-American family in Decorah, Iowa. A graduate of Luther College, she taught music and English in American schools, taught English in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a drama/music/English teacher in Papua New Guinea, and Activity Director/Consultant for a long-term care facility in St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn. She is a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul and has written numerous articles for publication. Rosalie lives in Arden Hills, Minn.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.