Not many more Christmas scenes and books on the blog: today, a look at a hard winter in Scandinavia
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbackpublished 2015
[set in 1717]
Back in Ostrobthnia, their Christmas celebrations had begun with Mass and were followed by a bath. Paavo would make a fire beneath the big iron tub in the barn and fill it with snow. They’d take turns to sit down in it, wash their hair, scrub their bodies, the girls squealing with horror that was really joy….
Maija rose and went to take out the parcel she had hidden underneath the bed.
In August, Maija had made wool thread, dyed it the clearest blue and wove cloth on the loom in the barn. The colour she’d created amazed her. It was like having a piece of the sky in their barn. She had sewn the dresses during the late autumn evenings.
‘Ah!’ Dorotea said when she saw it. ‘Can I try it on? Please?’
Seeing her joy, Maija had to laugh. Frederika stroked the cloth of the dress with her hand.
commentary: This seasonal extract does not give a truly representative view of the book – maybe you were thinking this was some kind of Little House on the Lapland Prairie, lovely tales of childhood joys in a harsh landscape, but it is far from that.
Christmas is a happy break, but the rest of the story is a fairly unrelenting list of the horrors of living on Blackasen Mountain, way out from the nearest settlement, in what was in the past called Lapland in northern Sweden (the Lapp people are now known as Sami). As well as the natural difficulties of scraping a living in an unforgiving climate, there is something mysterious going on: bodies and deaths, the cold hand of religion and the fear of witchcraft, and one turn which was revealed well into the book, but seemed obvious from the first mention – I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be.
The book is set in 1717, in the reign of Charles or Carl XII, and his relentless military campaigning is threatening these remote people, with his need for money and conscription. This is Carl here:
The whole story is harsh and sad and bitter. There is a most compelling section where the family and a visitor are trapped in their house by a storm and are always on the point of being buried by snow and stuck without food.
So make the most of these happy moments of Christmas… it is a readable but gloomy book. Thanks to Izzy R for recommending it.
Ekback has revealed that she tried writing Wolf Winter in a number of different time periods before finally settling on the early 18th Century, which is surprising as the story does seem locked into its background. But I used this fact to choose two pictures which are wildly out of time for the book (if she can do it so can I), but are Swedish, both by the wonderful artist Carl Larsson, from the turn of the 19/20th century. That’s his daughter Brita, both in the blue dress and in the red dress for the Christmas edition of a magazine called Idun (named after the Norse figure of Iduna, whom Brita represents in this picture).
Christmas picture by Carl Larsson 1901
King Carl XII of Sweden by Michael Dahl.
Little girl in blue by Carl Larsson.
All from the Athenaeum website.