The Plot: 1910. Giron, the Arctic Circle. Sig, 14, is alone in his family’s cabin except for the dead body of his father, Einar. A stranger knocks on the door — a stranger who says he knows Sig, knows his father, and has been hunting them for ten years. The stranger says he is owed something by Einar. The stranger has a revolver. What the stranger does not suspect is that Sig also has a revolver.
The Good: It’s easy to see why this earned a Printz Honor. Terrifically sparse writing, full characters, a tight plot, setting so real you put on another sweater.
The solitariness and isolation of the Arctic Circle at the turn of the century is mirrored in the book itself. Only a handful of characters appear or are talked about; Sig’s whole existence is not just in remote Arctic cabins but also involves only his parents and his older sister. This confinement makes the appearance of the threatening stranger all the more disturbing.
Revolver tells two stories, one in 1910 where Einar lies dead from a fall through ice in subzero temperatures and one in 1899, when Einar was a young man with a wife, two small children, and a thirst to find gold in Nome, Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. The past explains that Wolff knows Einar but it doesn’t explain why he has tracked this small family for so many years.
Sedgwick’s writing is tight: no words are wasted. It is deceptive in its simplicity, because while it makes this book a “quick read” there are layers with much being conveyed in a few words. Every word matters, much like every movement, every bite of food, every moment matters in 1910 and 1899.
The first sentence — “Even the dead tell stories” — is at first an introduction to Einar’s death but also becomes literal as the dead — Einar — tells his 1899 story.
Because of the writing style, the reader is told just enough about the historical aspects of the story to create the flavor of the past. Details are only given for things that matter to the story: the process of testing the quality of the gold found in Nome, the mechanics of how the revolver works.
Historical fiction, yes. It is also a mystery: what does Wolff want? Did Einar do something to warrant Wolff’s obsessive ten year search? Finally, it is a thriller: what will Sig do, especially when Wolff’s threats of violence and murder escalate to include Sig’s sister Anna?
What drives the book is the question about what young Sig will do — will he pull out the revolver and shoot Wolff? Sig’s mother viewed the gun with distaste (“You mustn’t let him touch it. You mustn’t. Guns are evil.”) while Einar’s father saw it as an amazing machine (“The boy must learn respect for it while he’s young.” “The Colt is the finest machine I have ever seen in my life. It does one thing, and it does it superbly well.”) As Sig struggles with his decision about using the gun (shoot Wolff or don’t shoot Wolff) he is also struggling with the two different ways he’s been taught.
Because I want to discuss Wolff’s motivation as well as Sig’s choice. And even now, I’m trying not to be too spoilery… This is the type of book that demands discussion. How can it be discussed without, well, talking about what happens and doesn’t happen?
First, Wolff. As the story in 1899/1900 unfolds, the reader learns about the connection between Wolff and Einar. What Einar did and did not do, what Wolff did or did not do, is both surprising and shocking. As is Sig’s response. There is much here to talk about, in terms of responsibility and consequences. If you’ve read Revolver, what do you think about why Wolff chased Einar and Einar’s own actions?
Second, Sig’s choice at the end. As he explains, ”There’s always a third choice in life. Even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way.” Seriously, stop reading now if you don’t like spoilers.
Sig’s choice as he sees it: Shoot Wolff. Don’t shoot Wolff. The “third choice” involves Sig using what his father has taught him about how the revolver works to create a situation that injures Wolff. So, yes, strictly speaking Sig has two options (shoot / don’t shoot) and chooses a third that is neither of those. Viewed more broadly, aren’t his options really inflicting harm or not inflicting harm on Wolff? His decision to inflict harm in a manner other than shooting Wolf does so much damage to Wolff that, arguably, it ultimately leads to Wolff’s death years later. This book will make for fascinating discussion on that aspect alone — is this really a third choice? Is what Sig did “better” than shooting Wolff?