(parts II and III of the Minnesota trilogy)
By Vidar Sundstøl, translated by Tiina Nunnally
University of Minnesota Press
The first book of Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota trilogy, The Land of Dreams, piqued my interest with its straightforward murder investigation laced with accessible commentary on Minnesota geology, culture and history. In Books II and III, the two mysteries at issue unfold slowly while sensitively representing the experiences of Scandinavian immigrants and Native American myth and dreamscapes.
Book II, Only the Dead, alternates between two intense crises. One is set in the present and the other in 1892. The historical narrative follows the inner thoughts of Lance Hansen’s Norwegian ancestor, who came all alone to Minnesota in the depths of winter and nearly died. Sundstøl sets it apart from the main storyline by using an italic font and the first person, present tense. Here we find out what happened between the young immigrant and the Native American Indian who saved his life.
Meanwhile, in the present, Lance suffers his own crisis. On a deer hunt with his brother, he broods over his dark family history:
As he lay stretched out on the cold, raw forest floor…[he] realized that the world his father had known had totally disintegrated. It simply no longer existed. What had once been the family’s history had now been reduced to something so incomplete and chaotic that a life could never be built upon it…Lance would have to stand on his own two feet without having an orderly and comprehensible past to support him. He would have to live with the incomplete, with the lack of logical coherence between all things, and accept that his own history was a dark abyss…he came from a big nothing.
The story Lance grew up with about his proud heritage has collapsed. He is depressed as well by his divorce and isolation, the fact that “hardly anybody touched Lance anymore; only his son.” His brother mocks his interest in local history. “All that history stuff” is an embarassment, he tells Lance. “[T]he truth is that people are laughing at you.”
Lance is, initially, a fairly ordinary sort of thinker, someone who finds meaning in the platitudes printed inside Dove chocolate wrappers (this may or may not endear him to you). He is now pushed to the edge, pondering the uselessness of everything. With half delirious characters whose thoughts are recorded in minute detail throughout long, italicized passages, Book II strives for literary and spiritual nuance. Although it tends to feel overwrought for a crime novel and underwhelming for a literary novel, it does convey the gravity of the issues faced by those with murky family histories and weighty cultural baggage.
In Book III it is a relief to return to more traditional pacing and structure. The narrative moves on again, despite generous space given to bizarre dream narratives and mystical Native American stories. Amid cultural and existential tumult, Sundstøl reveals how blatant prejudice and unconscious biases affect victims and perpetrators alike. Most disturbingly, he explores how atavistic upwellings of violence can grip even the mildest people. But Lance eventually solves the murder at Baraga’s cross, always pushing onward for spiritual transformation, meaning, and companionship as he takes in both the darkness and the light of an ancient perspective.
The trilogy may not appeal to readers looking for hard boiled crime fiction or “Nordic Noir,” or to those averse to ghosts and dreams in novels. But these books are notable for their portrait of the complex interplay between Scandinavian-American and Native American cultures, and many will appreciate the portraits of contemporary and historical people living in the beautiful, formidable Upper Midwest.
Ratings (out of 5 possible)
The whole trilogy: 3 stars
The Land of Dreams 3.5 stars
Only the Dead 2.5 stars
The Ravens 3 stars