In 1916 Hillevi Klarins, a 25-year-old midwife from Uppsala, Sweden, applies for a position in northern Röbäck, in the rural Blackwater region. She is entering an unknown world, where tensions between native Lapps, Swedes, and nearby Norwegians run high. Though the area has electricity and plumbing, Röbäck remains a place haunted by little people, folk medicine, and a profound distrust of the medical instruments Hillevi carries.
Lonely and disoriented, she makes the long journey north, made further uncomfortable by the drunken Trond Halvorsson: Hillevi must endure the final portion of her journey close beside him in his horse-drawn carriage. Upon arrival, her lodgings indicate Röbäck’s welcome: she is given a meager garret. She spends her days wishing for the arrival of Edvard Nolin, the Uppsala preacher to whom she is secretly betrothed. Nolin has accepted an opening in Blackwater; Hillevi surprises him by taking a position nearby.
As she anxiously awaits his arrival, she experiences her first birth: Serine, a 14-year-old girl living with a family named Eriksson. The Erikssons live insqualid poverty. Rude and suspicious, they reluctantly allow Hillevi inside, where Serine has labored four days. Under numerous watchful eyes, Hillevi manages to deliver a little girl. She is skiing home, exhausted and unnerved, when a young man—Erlis, the infant’s teenaged father—thrusts the infant into her arms. But it’s too late. Left in the cold by her grandfather, the newborn is beyond resuscitation.
This early bad blood between Hillevi and the elder Erikssons—Vilhelm, Erlis’s father, and Erik, his abusive grandfather—will color the novel. God’s Mercy is the first book of The Wolfskin trilogy, a long story following the half-Lapp, half-Swedish Kristen (or Risten) Larsson, who also has a significant narrative role in the book.
Life in this tiny corner of the world is impossibly remote. Lapps raise reindeer and speak Sami, a language inscrutable to the Swedes, who hunt, fish, and trap according to the region’s eight seasons: winter-spring, gyre-daelvie, gyrje, or spring, spring-summer, gyjre-giesie, summer, giesie, autumn-summer, tjaktje-gieisie, autumn, tjaktje, autumn-winter, daelvie, and black winter, whose Sami name is not given. The little people abound; a Gufhitar—that is, a female ghost or demon—is resident in the house where Trond’s sister Jonetta begins married life, only to die six years later.
Hillevi—rather priggish despite her medical training and intimacy with Edvard, is initially horrified by her new surroundings. Surprisingly, this woman so worried about Edvard’s opinion and her weaving is soon asking Märta Karlsa, her landlady, how to milk the cows and prepare preserved pork and whey cheese, a combination she finds delicious.
Ekman meticulously documents details of this forgotten life. There is the food: whey cheese, dumplings, reindeer broth; Hillevi’s wedding feast includes reindeer tongue, aged goat cheese, poached char with consomme cubes, wood grouse, dried morels in Madeira, and black grouse. She records Sami, with its traditional songs, or Yoiks, particularly as sung by Anund Larsson, Kristen’s uncle. Ekman is careful to show the poor—the Lapps, whom the Swedes consider stupid, dirty, and incapable of feeling—unworthy of God’s Mercy. The Erikssons, with their crowded hut out on a spit, are also considered “lesser.” When Hillevi is approached by desperate women seeking abortions for the 10th, 11th, and 12th pregnancies, she is arrogant in her refusal. Yet Hillevi herself, raised from toddlerhood by a wealthy aunt and uncle, is thought to be “moving downward” when she takes up midwifery. When she marries Trond Halvorsson, her family is quietly appalled. Yet Trond turns out to be far more loving and loyal than the nervous Edvard Nolin ever could be.
The couple set up shopkeeping and soon have a son, Tore. Hillevi gradually blends into the community, save the Erikssons, who do their best to unnerve her. Yet she is a steady woman; even a dog paw left on the stairwell fails to frighten her.
After a brutal beating by his grandfather, Elis Eriksson runs away from home, making it to Norway, where he joins a logging team, lying about his age and identity. The work is awful; he is soon overcome by TB and taken to a sanitarium, where he feigns amnesia. There he begins a long, slow recovery, freely indulging his passion for drawing. His becomes the third narrative thread of the novel, as he moves from Norway to Germany, where his artwork gains some renown. But as Hitler’s forces close in, this most Aryan of men, horrified, flees to Paris.
Kristen Larsson gradually reveals herself. Her mother, Ingir, now dead, was Lapp, her Swedish father unknown. She lives with her grandfather Mickel and Anund Larsson, also known as Laula Anut, Lapp for “Singing Anund”. Hillevi, concerned about the child’s welfare, approaches the Larsson home only to find a feral, freezing, nearly naked child who speaks no Swedish. She is covered with sores Anund insists are from an eagle’s abduction. After some convincing, Hillevi is permitted to take Kristen home, where she becomes a part of Hillevi and Trond’s family, growing especially close to Myrtle, Hillevi’s biological daughter.
Though much happens in God’s Mercy, only as few instances are of the “novelistic crisis” variety. Rather, the book moves slowly through the lives of these people in Blackwater, Sweden as they acclimate to an increasingly modern world. World War II bears down inexorably; cars gradually replace horses. Reindeer herding becomes impossible as lands are logged; the wolves who once terrorized the residents are hunted and killed to near extinction. The little people, so fond of bright colors and soft little homes, are driven out by insensitive modern citizens. Tore, after nearly dying from a childhood bout of diptheria, grows up slow-witted and dull, unable to learn logging or when to keep his foolish mouth shut. Myrtle is smart, shy, and has a pretty voice. But it is Kristen who sees everything, even as a child. It is as if her double citizenship, allowing her to move between Lapp and Swedish worlds, affords her a wisdom comparable only to Hillevi’s.
The writing is gorgeously evocative of a place many of us will never see. Here is Kristen, describing the lake where Hillevi makes a shocking discovery about her sister-in-law, Aagot: “The lake water is velvety in autumn-summer. Rowing is like stirring veal stock that’s just starting to thicken.”
Later: “All the layers of air, the cold ones and the warm ones, the dry ones and the damp ones, the deep stretches of cold water in the lakes, the glimmering surface, the mountains and the marshes with their patches of sunlight, their little quilts of gold, all of them are friendly toward us today ... The earth holds us up, and we walk upon it easily.”
Credit is also due to translator Linda Schenck, who ably shifts this exquisite prose into English, an onerous task when one considers the Scandinavian language family is entirely distinct from the Romance Languages, where English makes its comfortable home. At no point does the reader halt at a word choice, even as Schenck moves from Sami to Norwegian to German, then back to Swedish and English.
As the novel closes—the year is 1939, and Kristen is marrying the Lapp Nils Klementsson—we are in Hillevi’s head. Now middle-aged, she is worried about this marriage, which will carry her foster daughter high into the mountains. She is also sweltering and short of breath in her new corset, bought specially for the occasion. In a moment simultaneously amusing, tender, and bittersweet, she forces Trond to pull over en route to the wedding, begging him to help her out of the strangling garment. But the judgemental young woman of 1916 has been replaced by a more understanding individual, one capable even of pity for the Erikssons, who behave abominably, and of a wistful envy for the passion between Kristen and Nils. Her once fervent belief in God’s Mercy is long gone; she has seen far too much of life to accept such a notion.
Books like God’s Mercy aren’t big sellers. With their small publishers—here, the excellent University of Nebraska Press—and even smaller promotional budgets, the serious reader must be a sort of detective, ferreting out the great literary works that still exist, albeit out on a very long tail. There is an irony in using the internet—this harbinger of endless twitters and blogs and bytes—to promote the sort of slow literary beauty found here. But there is also the chance to recommend you log off and take the time to read this lovely book.