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This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 25, 2014.
“It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”
In 1717, the Swedish Laplands are home to indigenous nomadic Laplanders and a mere sprinkling of Christian settlers. A new family has just arrived, fleeing an enigmatic unpleasantness in their native Finland, to take over a vacant homestead on the shoulder of beautiful but harsh Blackåsen Mountain. Frederika is 14, Dorotea six; their mother, Maija, is strong and resourceful, while their father, Paavo, is so crippled by vaguely defined fears that he seems to disappear even in the ever-present light of summer. In the opening pages of Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel, Wolf Winter, the girls discover a dead body on the mountain: a man, with his torso torn open. Maija rushes to the scene and is told by other settlers he was killed by wolves, or a bear. But the cut is long and clean, nothing has fed upon the corpse, and she wonders. She picks up a small item off the ground nearby.
The settlers do not live close to one another; it requires a purposeful hike to visit with a neighbor. Nonetheless, there is a priest in the village–a place generally vacant, where the settlers gather for Christmas and several weeks after, as required by the King–under whose purview a murder might fall. Just as Maija feels compelled to investigate the death of a man she never knew, the priest has his own orders, and his own secrets as well.
In the autumn, as the days in this far northern land shorten, Paavo leaves to find work far away. Maija capably runs her remaining household, and frustrates her neighbors, who feel that a woman should not speak at meetings. Frederika is haunted by the dead man she and her sister found. She begins to discover certain strengths, or powers, taught by her great-grandmother. Is she being haunted, or is she calling the dead? Frederika seeks guidance from the Laplanders, who used to commune with the spirits, but they have been (nominally) converted to Christianity by the Swedish king. And the priest remains a figure of mystery: Why investigate the death on Blackåsen Mountain? What is he hiding? While always told in third person, the perspective shifts subtly, between that of Maija, Frederika and the priest.
As winter falls, there is a palpable feeling of danger on the mountain and in the scattered, tenuous community. Paavo does not write home, the cold intensifies, food is scarce. Maija feels a continuing urge to solve the mystery of the murdered man on Blackåsen, which makes her no friends, and the priest clearly has motives of his own. War looms in the background, frostbite in the foreground. Maija cannot be sure which of the Swedish settlers she might be able to trust; each time she turns to a new acquaintance, she receives a cold shoulder or an alarming intuition. Even her daughter Frederika feels unreachably distant in their tiny, draughty house. Both Frederika and Maija attempt alliances with the nomadic Laplanders who move through their lives, but each gets less than she’d hoped. And Dorotea, seemingly too small to engage in adult machinations, is in danger from the obvious as well as the most surprising and sinister of threats.
Wolf Winter‘s scope is enormous. Maija struggles to keep her family afloat; struggles for autonomy and reason in a community ruled by secrets, fear and corruption; and seeks a voice as a woman in her own fate. Several levels of organization push and pull against one another: the household, the loose network of homesteads, the village which is only inhabited in darkest winter, the church and state, the King’s decrees and the wars he engages in–all will eventually supply tension in a story set on a sparsely populated and apparently cursed mountain.
Ekbäck imbues her tale with a sense of foreboding from the very start, and her austere writing matches the landscape: occasionally colorful but often in muted shades of gray, stark, cold and unforgiving. The range of topics touched upon–women’s place in society, isolation and community, political corruption, family, the power of superstition and fear–is daunting, but Ekbäck never attempts too much. Instead, the questions her characters ask themselves do the work of the novel’s examinations. Frederika struggles with her ability to see things that others do not; Maija resists such a possibility, to keep a grip on her family’s survival; and the priest strains to maintain the appearance of well-being.
The strengths of Wolf Winter clearly begin in its atmosphere, masterfully chilling with its literal weather–particularly a deadly snowstorm–as well as the isolation and withdrawal practiced by almost every character. Ekbäck’s pacing is expert as well, tension building as the snow rises and the settlers gather together. The characters’ secrets are many, and are revealed slowly throughout, up to the final pages. Even the characters more sparingly described are engaging; the central characters are deeply, thoroughly captivating. In the end, multiple faceted mysteries add to the allure of a debut novel that is both frigidly unnerving and wise, and ultimately satisfying in its resolution.
Rating: 7 toes.
Come back Wednesday for my interview with Ekbäck.
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