Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Wolf Winter," by Cecilia Ekback


I have "Netgalley" to thank for scoring a review copy of "Wolf Winter" by Cecilia Ekback. I was intrigued by the title and setting: Swedish Lapland of 1717-1718. Also there are wolves (always a plus for me)!

A family of immigrants from Ostrobothnia in Finland have arrived as settlers in the Swedish countryside. They've barely arrived before the older of two daughters, Fredericka, discovers the remains of murdered neighbor. Soon the family is confronted with an especially harsh winter -- the "Wolf Winter" of the title -- and finds their own troubled past has not been entirely left behind.


Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, 1920s Finnish farm.
Historical photo, 1920s Finnish farm*
The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of three characters**:
  • Maija, the mother of the immigrant family
  • Frederika, at 14 years of age, the older of Maija's two daughters
  • The priest from the nearby town who ministers to the settlers scattered over Blackasan mountain
There are magical-realism elements to the story, which I won't elaborate on to avoid spoilers. I will note that the story takes place a generation after a time historically famous for witch hysteria in the region. In particular, Ostrobothnia was home to the executions of twenty women and two men as witches between 1674 and 1678. How do I know this? Because reading "Wolf Winter" made me curious and I dug around a bit -- a quality I definitely like in a book!
 
In the course of "Wolf Winter," we also encounter members of the native, nomadic Lapp community. While a level of interdependence between the Lapps and farming settlers is necessitated by isolation and harsh conditions, there is also a fair amount of friction and mistrust. Maija and Frederika both try to bridge this gap, with only limited success. Maija in particular can't seem to stop herself from making assumptions and getting caught in cultural misunderstandings.


Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, Lapp family
Historical photo, undated. Lapp family*


Nonetheless, Maija is an interesting, intelligent and resourceful character. She is also very bad at taking even the bluntest of hints, and so puts herself as well as her family into danger. Her lack of the social graces shows in her interactions with her own teenage daughter, the Lapp leader she would like to befriend, and the other settlers who generally find her curiosity annoying and her manner too demanding -- "for a woman."

For her part, Frederika is smart and stubborn, and just beginning to understand and apply her own personal gifts. Women and children are especially vulnerable in this harsh, unforgiving world, and Frederika has to rise to confront problems the adults around her have evaded.

Even the priest has a secret past he can't entirely escape. His responsibility is to obey the bishop and keep his parishioners obedient to the orders of the king. He sets his mind to do this, even when he finds those orders destructive and worse than pointless.


Review of "Wolf Winter" by Cecelia Ekback. Historical photo, 1903. Manual labor in the Swedish countryside.
Historical photo, 1903. Manual labor in the Swedish countryside*
 
"Wolf Winter" has some lovely writing, evoking and animating the beauty of the landscape: 

"...her eyes were light, brown or green -- seawater through the slats of a dock."

"Late autumn this year had violence in her hair, angry crimson, orange, and yellow. The trees wrestled to free themselves of their cloaks, crumpled up their old leaves and threw them straight out into the strong wind rather than just let them fall to the ground."

"At first Gustav's eyes were blue. A sea. the rings from a jumping fish."

I don't know why I'm drawn to stories about people surviving in extreme cold conditions. I hate being cold and despise icy ground, and am not fond of snow (unless I'm inside a cozy and well-stocked house looking out at it through a window). Reading a book like this is as close as I ever care to come to blizzard conditions and frostbite, but I do enjoy the reading!

In fact, I ended up reading this book twice in quick succession -- I picked it up and finished it in the days preceding a total hip replacement. Once I got home and had recovered a bit, I felt that in a fog of anxious anticipation and pain, my brain just hadn't been able to give the book a fair first read. So once I was finally feeling a bit better, I decided to read it again.


On the whole I quite liked "Wolf Winter" and would recommend to readers who like historical mysteries, or who just find the setting intriguing.





*I normally use my own photographs for this blog, but although I've (very briefly) visited Finland, I don't have digitized versions of my photographs to share. So I checked the Wikimedia Commons site for historical photographs to use, and came up with a few really interesting shots. These are old enough to be out of copyright, though they also also lack attribution and much in the way of context.
 
**"Wolf Winter" is now available on Amazon, and from reading the publisher's description, I realized that some edits have been made subsequent to the version I have:

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maj, her husband Jan-Erik and her daughters Frederika and Marit arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.
Notably, the names of several characters have been altered from the version I read. It's possible other edits have been made as well, which might or might not supersede some of my comments.