Blending Scandinavian Noir & HF: Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter
In October 2016, from the six shortlisted historical novels,1 Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter was judged the winner of the Goldsboro Debut Crown. I was fortunate enough to be present at the Harrogate History Conference and to hear her express her thanks in a lilting voice which carried traces of both Canada and Sweden.
As all members of the HNS know, historical novels come in all shapes and sizes frequently overlapping with other genres of fiction. In the past two decades, the British public has embraced Scandinavian Noir crime fiction. Wolf Winter presents us with a historical crime novel set in the early 1700s. It grabs readers by the scruff of the neck right from the start when a woman and her two daughters stumble across the mutilated body of a man on the slopes of Blackåsen mountain in Swedish Lapland. A cursory glance indicates brutal injuries inflicted by a bear or wolf. The local inhabitants are prepared to leave it at that; but not Maija. Having recently arrived from Finland, she is the archetypical outsider, a constant in crime fiction, and she cannot or will not let it go.
Blackåsen cannot be found on a map of Sweden, yet it is totally real to readers. Ekbäck has created an authentic sense of unease, even evil, as bitter winter grips the community. She takes readers into its small community, slowly and irrevocably revealing the darkness within. Two distinct groups of people inhabit Wolf Winter: the Swedish settlers and the Lapps, whose ancestral beliefs are a combination of animism, polytheism and shamanism. Both communities are mutually distrustful. There is an air of magic realism in Ekbäck’s writing which tempers the harsh reality of the environment.
The novel has three viewpoint characters: Maija; her adolescent daughter, Frederika; and the priest. All are outsiders and all are troubled people. Although the characters and the underlying darkness of Blackåsen dominate this novel, it is Lapland, in general — its harsh environment, its people and its history — that fascinate me the most.
Swedish by birth, Cecilia lived in that country until she was twenty. Her grandparents lived much further north in Swedish Lapland,2 where she used to visit them. Ekbäck feels a strong affinity with its people and their environment. During her beloved father’s terminal illness, she spent a great deal of time talking with him about his life. When he passed away, her grief plunged her into a period of deep darkness, which in Swedish is called “Wolf Winter” (Vargavinter). This phrase can refer to a particularly harsh winter physically, but is more likely to refer to a dark period in one’s life.
Both meanings are strongly in evidence in Wolf Winter. For instance, when Maija and her daughters are caught up in a severe blizzard, Dorotea’s feet are frost-bitten, and it is highly likely they will be lost. Yet, as the novel continues, it is ironic that Dorotea’s damaged feet are precisely what save her from a different evil.
I have also read Ekbäck’s second novel, In the Month of the Midnight Sun, with admiration. It is also a tale of murder set around Blackåsen Mountain, but in the nineteenth century. Set in high summer rather than deepest winter, it is equally stunning in its evocation of the landscape and its inhabitants and how its extremities can unbalance people.
Ekbäck says the novel she is currently writing has a contemporary setting and characters. I look forward to it, but I do not think the past will let her go so easily.
- Ekbäck justifies the choice to refer to the Lapps using this now denigrated name because this was the term current in the eighteenth century.
About the contributor: After Hope Against Hope (Myrmidon, 2011) Sally Zigmond is now working on a novel set in the fourteenth century about a small priory of nuns. sallyzigmond.blogspot.co.uk.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 79, February 2017