Sometimes you need a book that soothes spirit – a book that starts slowly and meanders along at a gentle pace, telling a gentle story that leaves you feeling like you’ve been floating down a lazy river in the not-too-hot sunshine. Virgil Wander is that kind of book.
Leif Enger is known for his use of allegory and symbolism, and remains true to form in Virgil. The overarching theme that appears again and again throughout the story is flight and all the things that go along with it – here specifically weightlessness, freedom, and risk-taking.
The story begins with our titular character, Virgil Wander, recovering from an awful accident that had him driving his car off an embankment into Lake Superior. While his car doesn’t make it, Virgil escapes with some bodily damage and a traumatic brain injury. Language is one of the things that Virgil has lost – not the ability to speak, but the use of adjectives – the ability to describe. It leaves Virgil feeling like a stranger in his home, his job, and his life in general.
Into this confusion comes Rune Eliasson, an old man from the Arctic Circle searching for a son he didn’t know was conceived on a long ago trip to Greenstone, Minnesota. He discovers the son mysteriously disappeared a decade before, but stays to find out more about him. Virgil and Rune bond over flying kites and eventually become unlikely roommates.
What commences is the story of how Virgil Wander recovers his adjectives and discovers a new life right on top of the old one. Along the way, Virgil and the multitude of characters living in Greenstone struggle with the vagaries (and predictabilities) of small town life. The story is a common one across the Great Lakes region where towns that boomed with good fortune and wealth for years are now faced with closed factories, declining population, and aging infrastructure.
The big question is why do people stay in these small towns with no future. Enger’s answer, I think, lies in the symbolism here. One of the characters, Shad Pea, is allegedly killed by a monster sturgeon, which his surviving son vows to kill. The fish itself becomes a character here, driving one of the many sub-plots until a blood-pumping scene at the end of the book. The fish is often used as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, a theme entwined with the lives of the characters and the town. Relationships are born and reborn throughout, further emphasizing the importance of friends, family, and acquaintances in daily life. People in Greenstone care about each other and, more importantly, take care of each other.
The more obvious theme here, though, is flight. For Virgil, his old life has flown away, but he’s finding a new one bit by bit. Rune’s amazing handmade kites are used as the vehicle to bring people together and to provide the sense of power and weightlessness that exists when something leaves the earth to swoop through the air. While you can see the kite and feel it through the string, a wayward breeze or a strong wind can take that kite and fold it up, crash it, or make it soar if only you have the courage and perseverance to keep it in the air. One of my favorite scenes has Rune and Virgil flying a kite in the dark. Virgil never knows which kite he was flying. All he knows is what he can feel through the string and he says it is “a curious privilege…to fly without so much as a glimpse of perception of the wing.” That is a turning point for Virgil when he realizes that his new life will require risk-taking.
Virgil’s budding relationship with Nadine is part of his transformation, and Enger handles it with the gentle matter-of-factness of finding a partner late in life. It just happens. And that is ultimately what Virgil Wander discovers. Life happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you get a raw deal. How you respond to both the good and the bad is what makes your life important.
Virgil Wander is not the most exciting book you will ever read and, indeed, many reviews call it out for being boring. If you’re not a small town kind of person, I expect you would find this odd and a little dull. Anyone who has spent some time living in a small town will recognize the unusual (and usual) characters that show up everywhere, and will enjoy drawing comparisons to real-life examples of the Village Hall staff, the tired sheriff, the local marijuana grower, and the colorful characters who are found everywhere. If you have a couple hours of uninterrupted time where you want to fall into a cozy, friendly reading trance, pick this up and snuggle down. You’ll emerge refreshed.