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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Five) - "Wolf Winter" by Cecilia Ekbäck

On the fifth day of my Book Advent Calendar, we come to the letter “E.”  Today’s recommendation is a historical mystery set in Swedish Lapland in 1717.  This is the author’s debut novel; her second, In the Month of the Midnight Sun, will be published in February of 2016.

Day Five:  Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
4 Stars
It is 1717; the Ranta family (Paavo, Maija and their daughters Fredericka and Dorotea) move to Blackåsen Mountain in Swedish Lapland. Shortly after their arrival, 14-year-old Fredericka finds the mutilated body of Eriksson, a man disliked by both the other settlers on the mountain and the Lapps who have a winter camp in the area. The locals want to blame wolves but Maija believes murder was committed and is determined to find the killer.

Maija is joined in her search by Fredericka who has inherited “gifts” which lead her into the supernatural realm especially when she becomes drawn into the shamanistic belief system of the Lapps. The local priest also delves into Eriksson’s death when his bishop insists that the murderer be identified. The perspectives of these three are given throughout, though narration is always in the third person.

Blackåsen Mountain is very much a character in the novel. It is a brooding and menacing presence throughout, especially when the wolf winter arrives, a season which a Lapp explains to Fredericka: “’it’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal . . . Mortal and alone’’ (119). And the settlers certainly are isolated. There are only six homesteads on the mountain and the nearest village is a day’s travel. Even in that village only four households live year-round.

This setting is perfect for an exploration of fear. Fear of the new and the unknown permeates. When disturbing events occur, the people quickly fall back on superstitions including belief in witchcraft and sorcery. Even Maija who believes in the power of reason (189) realizes “Wise people were afraid of fear . . . [because] it was hard not to get caught in the webs of other people’s fears, especially if it concerned your children” (76). The novel also examines other human emotions. Maija observes that “Grief ate away at people until they had a different shape from before. Her mother had said many bad emotions could do the same: grief, hatred, fear . . . ”(162).

In the face of hardships, Ekbäck seems to suggest that Scandinavian stoicism is the way to proceed. A Lapp elder compares people to two trees whose crowns are intertwined; one has a twisted trunk and the other has a straight though scarred trunk. He says, “’Both of them have faced the same hardship, but they responded in different ways’’ (198). Maija makes the same point with another nature metaphor using two lakes, one which had turned into a marsh and one which remained a lake: “A being was either strong enough to hold their ground, or they became small and bottomless and started feeding on themselves” (101). Several times Maija mentions the need to “try to go on” (194). “[You] had to go on, keep moving, find new ways, look again” (213). One should not submit to fear or hatred but remain strong, like the straight tree or the large lake, and use reason.

Characters are well-developed. All of the homesteaders are clearly differentiated, though it becomes clear that all moved to the mountain to flee something or someone. Their rivalries and secrets make them all suspects. Of course, it is the characters of Maija, Fredericka and Olaus, the priest, which are more fully developed. All three are flawed and don’t always make wise choices, but all learn from their mistakes.

This is not a fast-paced thriller. It actually moves very slowly at first, but I did not find my interest lagging. I was, however, frustrated with the lack of background about the political situation. There is an author’s note at the end, but it comes too late. The references to the wars lead by the Swedish king, treasonous plots, and the threat of conscription are inserted without much explanation. It is clear that the church dominates the lives of the community and serves as an arm of the state but, again, there is little explanation of religious terms like Lady Day and Missa Candelarum.

This is a very enjoyable read. It is a historical mystery in an exotic locale with credible characters and interesting thematic development. Reading it in winter might be most appropriate but on a hot summer day it will bring a refreshing chill.