Book Review: ‘Virgil Wander’ a fascinating character study

Sunny Solomon Book ReviewWhat fun to recommend a novel by Leif Enger, one of my favorites.

He wrote the widely popular “Peace Like a River” and followed that with “So Brave, Young and Handsome.” Each one better than the one before, so it is no surprise that I think “Virgil Wander” is his best yet.

Virgil Wander is a young man in his 30s who owns an old and slightly worse for the wear movie theater. He also works for the city, which is in no better shape than his theater. While driving in stormy weather, his car veers over a railing and plunges into Lake Superior. That is page one.

Virgil is rescued from almost certain death by a fellow citizen with no plausible reason to be on the beach in such weather. After a week in a Duluth hospital, he returns home to Greenstone and his flat above the Empress Theater.

Journey to wellness

Book Review: ‘Virgil Wander’ a fascinating character study Told by his doctor that his concussion would probably cause only short-term memory loss, Virgil begins a journey to wellness. Along the way, we meet some beautifully defined characters – some real and one that may be a figment of Virgil’s concussed brain.

A return to wellness is a prevailing theme in Enger’s novel. Not only restoring Virgil’s health but also reuniting a kite-building Norwegian (Rune) with a missing adult son (Alec) he has only recently been told of. The widow (Nadine) of the missing Alec, a minor league baseball star who flew away from Greenstone, never to be heard of again, attempts to restore her life as widow and single mother. An almost famous movie producer (Adam) returns to Greenstone to redeem his name and property. Two characters, a giant fish and a ferocious raccoon, have no intention of bettering their pugnacious and deadly reputations.

Greenstone, a town once thriving on a successful taconite mine and shipping business, is now a mere shadow of itself. Enger has populated “Virgil Wander” with just about every resident who did not leave Greenstone when the mine closed. I cannot remember reading a novel with so many characters demanding their rightful place in every chapter. Next to Virgil, Greenstone itself is a major character also on a quest for wellness, despite its “hard luck” reputation.

Death by fishing

I will not give anything away, but the action includes fire, death by fishing, a hidden stash of stolen classic movie reels, romance of young, middle and senior folks, a possible appearance of Bob Dylan and a bombing plot that increases Greenstone’s population with state and federal law enforcement.

If that doesn’t get your attention, nothing will – except some very fine writing with a generous dose of laughter, wisdom and heart.

For those of you who like to find a novel’s literary roots, look no further than the protagonist’s first and last names. Think about the importance of water, weather, journeys and idols fallen and raised. Trust me, “Virgil Wander” has it all.

Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’

Sunny Solomon
Sunny Solomon
Freelance writer at Clayton Book Club | Website

Sunny Solomon holds an MA in English/Creative Writing, San Francisco State University. She is a book reviewer for “The Clayton Pioneer” and her poetry and other writing has been published in literary journals, one chapbook, In the Company of Hope and the collection, Six Poets Sixty-six Poems. She was the happy manager of Bonanza Books, Clayton, CA and Clayton Books, Clayton, CA. She continues to moderate a thriving book club that survived the closure of the store from which it began. Sunny currently lives next to the Truckee in Reno, NV.