Murder on an imaginary mountain
I wondered, when I read this, how Cecilia Ekbäck came to know Blackåsen Mountain in Sweden’s Lapland so well. But when I searched maps, I saw that there is no Blackåsen Mountain in Lappland (as the Swedes would spell it) in Northern Sweden. Ekbäck nevertheless describes the mountain and the surrounding villages and homesteads as if she had been there, walked every path, skirted every lake, sat on every ridge and viewed every view a hundred times. She has a prodigious imagination and an outstanding talent for descriptions that transport the reader into a very different time and place – Lapland in 1717. The atmosphere in the novel is gloomy, but riveting. Ekbäck combines a good mystery with some pastoralism and a fair dose of magic realism. The facts are pretty accurate for this particular period in Sweden’s history – the setting is well researched. But it is Ekbäck’s obvious affinity with the landscape that sets this novel apart from others in the genre of Cold Climate Mysteries. Her depictions of the snow melting in the spring, for instance, are well observed, beautiful and threatening at the same time:
“Ice on all the branches, eyes on black twines. Underneath roof edges, close to the walls, the snow has become clear and is forming tall spears. Water. Rippling, dripping, flowing. The sun turns the lake into a field of fallen stars. Sounds: stirrings and awakenings. By the river, the white is covered in black spots. It is moving. Thousands of stoneflies crawling, looking for something to eat.” (p.390)
Ekbäck explains why she was able to depict the remote cluster of huts and a village at the foot of a mountain in Lapland in 1717 so realistically:
“Blackåsen Mountain doesn’t exist as a physical place, but its nature is something I remember from my childhood: a combination of the places and memories I have from Hudiksvall, where I grew up, Knaften and Vormsele, the two small villages in Lapland where my grandparents lived, and Sånfjället, a mountain close to the Norwegian border, where our family had a cabin. Blackåsen is the embodiment of what I felt like growing up in the north of Sweden. It represents the fear, the doubts, the religious fervour, the loneliness and the need to fit in and to belong.” (Read the interview with Ekbäck on the blog, The Book Trail, here.)
The setting: Sweden, 1717
The characters in this story are rough, primitive even. Their lives at the foot of Blackåsen Mountain are far removed from life in the cities. The Laplanders in the story are portrayed as even more of outsiders, partly due to their belief in Shamanism, than the main characters, forming an interesting contrepoint. Look up Sweden at the beginning of the 18th century and you’ll see images of a grand Stockholm, palaces, wealthy people in formal dress (since only the rich could afford to have their portraits painted), grand battle scenes and the occasional hunting scene. Look up Swedish painters of the 19th century and the subjects are the same, except that there are a few surviving works portraying Laplanders with their tents and reindeer. Even then, Swedes saw the Laplanders, or Sami, as outsiders. In the Middle Ages, Lapland, which borders Norway and Finland and covers about 25% of Sweden’s surface area, was seen as a no-man’s land. From the Middle Ages onwards the Swedish kings tried to colonize and Christianize the area using settlers from what is now Finland and southern Sweden. Today, despite large-scale assimilation into the dominant Swedish culture, Finnish and Sami minorities continue to maintain their own cultures and identities.
While the Laplanders in this story seem to cope a lot better in the harsh winter than the settlers and farmers, Ekbäck depicts everyone’s lives as brutish, verging on desperate, especially when the winters are long and hard. Religion and the church – only one, the Lutheran Church – was one way of combining order with spiritual sustenance. The village priest had tremendous power – over life and death, as provider of aid and as the representative of the king, Charles XII. Charles XII and his court are dreams of a heavenly existence on earth to the priest of the village, Olaus, who seems to have lost his majesty’s favour. While Olaus cannot fault either the skill or morals of his king, the reign of Charles XII (1697–1718) is seen today as controversial. Some say he weakened Sweden with constant wars, against Russian insurgents, for instance, others say he was a military genius. He has been called a fanatic, a bully, and a bloodthirsty warmonger. Others say his bad reputation is inevitable since he inherited a tough job from his father, Charles XI, who reigned for almost forty years and was seen as the greatest Swedish king.
Crime in a cold climate
Into this quagmire of superstition, animism, shamanism, Lutherism, political plotting to overthrow the king and the harshest weather south of the Arctic, come Maija, her husband, Paavo – who has fled from his fisherman job in Finland – and her two daughters, Dorotea and Frederika. The eldest, Frederika, has inherited the family curse, the ability to see and converse with the dead. This turns out to be the saving grace of the family when there are murders and disappearances in the community, and Maija, who cannot resist searching for explanations and acting much more liberated than women of her time, stir up the neighbours, the priest and local nobility. Not that she is praised for her efforts. No – she risks being persecuted for being having the devil in her, for not knowing her place. The priest, Olaus, is one of the most interesting characters. He is slavishly devoted to the king and tempted by the widow of the previous priest who is wealthy and beautiful and distracts him from his duties – and from solving the crimes.
Nature as a catalyst
Around the central theme of murder and mystery in a time before fingerprints and evidence, Ekbäck builds the theme of nature as both a threat and a source of truth. The mountains are both the setting for crimes and the catalyst for the solving of the mystery. Once Frederika starts talking to the dead people, wolves start coming down from the mountain, chasing after her and terrifying her. But are they real? Are they, or the mountain with its dense forests, cliffs and howling storms, the cause of the deaths and disappearances?
“A wolf’s lone howl rang out. The cry rolled down the mountain and became stronger. It bowled in over the square and hit her like a squall. Fredericka fell backwards into the snow. And now the pack of wolves was on the move, leaping down Blackåsen’s sides, soaring, black scraggly shapes visible against the moon. Beasts hunting. Only these weren’t after meat, but something immortal.” (p.304)
The wolves and the mountain are threats and symbols of fear and danger – therefore the title of the book, an expression meaning a long, bitter, deathly cold winter. But they are also guardians. Does the mountain not reveal the ultimate clue in the medicinal plants that Maija finds on it? If the wolves had not chased Frederika, would she have kept her little sister in her sights at school and taken her safely home? Would she have found out the secret? In the end, the peasants of the village are powerless against the immoral – and criminal – nobles, but the mountain and the wolves on it are not:
“You won’t be able to stop what’s in progress, you know,’ Kristina said. ‘I am not planning on trying.’ ‘So, what will you do?’ Frederika brushed her hands off against her dress. Then she said, ‘Nothing’. She looked towards the forest behind Kristina. At the four low shapes that she saw, but Kristina could not. I will do nothing, she thought. But they will.” (p.405)
Ekbäck could’ve fallen into the trap of depicting the wolves as fantasy throat-rippers. Thank goodness she didn’t since that would’ve totally spoiled the book for me. (Go here to read my rant about wolves and wolf hunting.)
The atmosphere in the novel is dark, but riveting. Ekbäck combines a good mystery with some pastoralism (when the weather is good) and a fair dose of magic realism. The facts are pretty accurate for this particular period in Sweden’s history and the setting is well researched. But it is Ekbäck’s obvious affinity with the landscape that sets this novel apart from others in its genre (“Cold Climate Mysteries”), set in Sweden, with Lapp culture and assimilation as a sub-theme. Others in this genre that I’ve particularly enjoyed and still re-read are Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow or Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992), by Peter Høeg; and Under the Snow (De tre små mästarna) (1961) by Kerstin Ekman.
For more Swedish mysteries and must-read books, go here.
About the author
The author’s website is: http://www.ceciliaekback.com
After Cecilia Ekbäck completed her university studies she specialized in marketing. Over the subsequent twenty years her work for a multinational company took her to Russia, Germany, France, Portugal, the Middle East and the UK. In 2010, she finished a Masters degree in Creative Writing at research university Royal Holloway, University of London. She now lives in Calgary. Wolf Winter is her first novel – and what a debut it is! – and she is at work on her second. I wonder what is it about Canada that make Canadian authors so good at depicting places far north and full of snow? Take this one, and The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, for instance. Must be something in the water.