Wolf Winter has the odd distinction of being both the last book I started in 2016 and the first book I finished in 2017. It often annoys me if the last book/first book spends too much time on either side of the year break, but that’s a weird one of my Rules of Reading. It’s not even a rule, really. It’s more like a dumb thing that annoys me. This book was the January 2015 edition of Powell’s Indiespensible subscription service. I guess I’m a little behind on my Indiespensible reading (which also annoys me. Oh no, please don’t let this post turn into a litany of miniscule things that annoy me on a daily basis….)
I am pretty sure that this is a truism of reading: any book that one ends up reading during the month of December will take twice as long to finish as it would at any other time of year. I am glad, however, that I read Wolf Winter in the dead of winter, because it is a story of a winter that is deeper and darker than any I have ever experienced. The setting is eighteenth century Swedish Lapland, which is the northernmost part of Sweden, which means come winter it’s really dark and really cold and really snowy. The main characters are Maija, and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea, who come to Sweden with their husband/father Paavo, who is absent for much of the winter of the title. He goes south to look for work, and the women are left behind. But even before Paavo leaves, and actually before much of anything has happened, Dorotea and Frederika find a dead, mutilated body up on the local mountain, Blackåsen. Turns out it is the body of a man named Eriksson, a local man who has a few too many people with reasons to murder him. Maija is a medicine woman of sorts, and somehow ends up helping the local priest (who is new to the town, and not beloved amongst the locals) investigate Eriksson’s murder. There are all kinds of long-buried secrets in the snow here, and also a whiff of indigenous person mysticism, which Frederika is drawn to when she starts seeing and interacting with the ghost of Eriksson. I was disappointed that the ghost story aspect wasn’t fleshed out more, but one can only do so much with 350-ish pages. I almost wondered while I was reading if the author was going to write more books about these characters, if only because the Scandinavians are known for their crime fiction and this was at its core a murder mystery novel (which tend to be more series than stand alone novels), albeit a historical fiction one, and one that dips into literary fiction and magical realism too. I’m sure some people think Ekbäck is straddling too many genres here, but I actually quite liked the genre-straddling, and I think she did a great job with it. (Bethany: is “genre-straddling” a thing? If not, can we make it one?) I will definitely be looking for more books by Ekbäck, especially if I can spend more time with Maija and Frederika. The details have gotten a bit dim in the three months since I finished this book, but I remember thinking that both Maija and Frederika were women fighting the customary roles of women of their time: Maija likes having responsibilities beyond those of her home and family; Frederika wishes she could still go to school with her younger sister, but that time in her life has passed and she needs to be at home helping her mother. Both find ways to be more than what their society expects of them, and watching them age and grow in life experiences would be, I think, a venture worth people’s time and attention.