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Before even opening the proof copy of Stolen, the motion picture is already in the bag, with film production due to start in Sápmi, the former Lapland, at the time of writing. This raises the oldest question of which to enjoy first, the book or the film.
I recently asked award-winning author Anne-Helén how she felt about her book being adapted for Netflix. “I am an executive producer on the film and am involved in the script process as a consultant. Peter Birro who is the screenwriter is fantastic, and I am so grateful to have the chance to be a part of that process.” Her dream it seems is being fulfilled, which bodes well.
If you were invested in Reese Witherspoons’ scenic production of “Where The Crawdads Sing,” you are well placed for snow-riddled terrain, a landscape worthy of omniscience. Indeed, landscape plays a crucial role in Stolen, and draws worthy parallels with the waters featured in Witherspoon’s production, where marshlands are “grass on water”and the “swamp knows all about death.” It is a fixed setting, a winter wonderland, a picture postcard. Quotes like “better off learning from the wild” and “the only constant in nature is change” taken from the Crawdads film could so easily apply to Stolen too. How the novel will be portrayed on screen as opposed to set in our own imagination, is a thrilling prospect.
Speedy kicksleds, snowmobiles and the herding of reindeer for their livelihood, are the main focus of the indigenous Sámi people. Anne-Helén herself, descends from two of Sweden’s national minorities and in Stolen she gives us an insight into that heritage. For theorist Donna J. Haraway, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with,” her aim being to reshape our relationship with the earth and its people and certainly in this book, the impact of climate change on herding is brought to the fore. I would love to be a bird in the Sámi sky, wingspan at its fullest, towering above the snow and reindeer, the ultimate witness.
“Elsa” is the very first word in the book and it is through her that we experience the lives of Sámi families, their culture, traditions, food, and the work of reindeer herding. We get a glimpse into family structure and the challenges that come when new ideals are pitched against older more traditional values. These endearing people on the fringes of society lead an honest, humble existence that is not based on greed, but is very much a way of life, a love for their herd.
We are taken straight to an incident which kickstarts the whole book (which is perhaps not for the fainthearted), in which Elsa discovers her own pet reindeer, bloodied, against the whiteness of the crisp soft snow – its ear cut off. Scenes such as this are written throughout with beautiful sensory detail, despite often gruelling circumstances, detailing for example the expression on the reindeer’s face, right from the novel’s start. This is not, then, just the painful murder of a beloved herd animal, but the murder of a possession, a future, a living, a life, an identity, freedom, happiness, even possibility.
For the Sámi, the reindeer represent worth and wealth, providing clothes and meat. What is stolen, (and what is surely a powerful multiple metaphor), is innocence, power, livelihood and friendship. The ear becomes Elsa’s comfort, keepsake and treasure. It is as symbolic in her world as it is in the world of grief and loss. She takes it because it is hers, for her own healing, to remind her of her beloved reindeer. In the spiritual realm, reindeer teach perseverance, endurance and strength. Could it be argued however that she effectively stole a piece of evidence from the crime scene? The type of scene, as we later find out, that is rarely visited by the police.
Elsa knows the perpetrator yet when it comes to reporting it, despite her family’s suspicions, she admits nothing of what or who she saw. It becomes her life secret, until it isn’t. Elsa reasons that it’s about “how much you know and how much you pretend not to know,” her 16-year-old brother Mattias assuring us that “nobody steals,” and thereby implying that justice will be done. But are the perpetrators ever caught? Do the police cover up the facts? Can you even trust them? And can you trust a 9-year old’s version of events? Who knows what places truth in opposition to suspicion in a country’s legislation, but I wonder if different legislation in a different country would impact this?
These opening scenes determine the book’s pace. They open up conversations. We dive into restricted daylight hours, an unimaginable winter that can last seven months, landscapes full of reindeer – beautiful creatures that by the same token can cause disruption, danger, disturbance and anger among the local population. Hostility. Revenge.
Taking care to lose nothing in translation, translator Rachel Wilson-Boyles explains how the Sámi and Swedish languages interplay in the novel; “In the original Swedish, there are lots of terms and even some brief conversations in Sámi. The chapters are numbered in Sámi as well. Wherever there is Sámi in the original there is Sámi in English. So I translated only from Swedish, really, but it was important for me to know what every word meant so I could make sure an English reader would understand well enough. Many of the words are glossed directly in the text in Swedish, but for those I had questions about, I was able to ask Ann-Helén Laestadius or find help in a Sámi dictionary online.”
I was curious about her methodology as a translator, when working on a book such as this, and whether her approach to this novel was different to others. “I like to read the entire book first and have an idea of what I might need to keep in mind throughout the translation….This is my favorite part, the first draft. I always end up learning more about interesting concepts and going down some internet rabbit holes… What’s different about a book like this is the amount of research I do throughout the process. For Stolen, to make sure I had a handle on Sámi words and concepts surrounding reindeer herding and other culturally specific practices, I read quite a bit of secondary literature… I truly enjoy this kind of extra, in-depth research.”
I think we all have favourite parts. I like an interview, and there is many a good writer who comes alive in conversation. Margaret Attwood has said that she is “struck by writers’ dedication: their commitment to craft, the informed admiration for the work of other writers from whom they have learned, the insistence on the importance of what has been done, and what can be done, through the art itself.” Laestadius is just that, and her mastery of imagery is second to none. Sometimes the reader gets so absorbed in the story itself, that the hard work that goes on in the background gets overlooked. It does, however, contribute hugely to the creative process, from seed to fruition. I believe Laestadius has approached her themes with complete feminine sensitivity borne from personal life experience. Memoir-like, she fights through carefully crafted characters for the rights and existence of the Sámi and the tension that arises within their community – against an additional backdrop of xenophobia.
We are led through lives resplendent with all five senses in their finest forms and in every possible combination – the smell of the snow, the taste of a mother’s traditional mouthwatering home-made cooking in the kitchen, which is the hub of family life. Here one can practically smell the cinnamon buns, breads, stews and soups merely through the author’s sensory descriptions. Like the best soup your own mother ever made, the best bread your mother ever baked, it lingers. We live the smell of the ear that Elsa worships for days/weeks/months afterwards. Our noses tingle with the particular smell of the school classroom, the staff area or even the tea. Not forgetting the fresh air on faces and the smell of the cold.
Then there are sounds too that abound: the traditional yoink music (similar to chanting), the clicking of reindeer hooves. We are given the texture of the shepherd’s tent (lavvu), the touch of the reindeer fur and the detail of the traditional clothes that the Sámi wear with pride, including shoes and boots – everything made by hand. White is used as the base colour to which a pop of multi-colour is added to costumes usually worn for special occasions.
Indeed, what the author through all this detail describes, is a self-sufficient, sustainable community who absolutely deserve respect. Sámi cuisine “respects the natural cycle of animals and plants” as a way of life since the 17th century. Writing in waves of emotion, Elsa’s family is close and intergenerational, which in itself plays a pivotal role in her story, dealing with issues such as equity and conflict. She feels protected within it, knowing however that they keep things from her, but she grows up fast. The starkest contrast is perhaps the simple effective use of the blood-redness against freshly fallen whiteness, and the harsh symbolism of red against white. Indeed, Elsa describes the snow “when it was soft and fluffy, it was like falling into a cloud.”
I wonder what the late poet Mary Oliver would make of Stolen’s particular setting, where danger is set against beauty. Famously Oliver was inspired by nature from her lone walks in the wild. The essay “Writing That Has A Pulse” by writer Amanda Saint, discusses Oliver’s techniques. In “Winter Hours,” Oliver talked of energy being a pre-requisite in her poems, that in Oliver’s own words, every poem should be “rich with pictures of the world.” She spoke of wanting the poem she writes to “have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight.” Similarly to Haraway’s questioning, in “Some Questions You Might Ask,” Saint explains that the poet had nature of a different kind in mind – that of reality, of the soul.
I think Mary Oliver would be happy. In Laestadius’ Stolen, the winter snow is distinct from the summer sand, when the seasonal change finally pushes through, and when the reindeer herds migrate between winter grounds and summer pastures: “The softest sand was hidden in the river like a treasure only the villagers knew about. When the meltwater from the mountains had run through and the rains had abated, the river had a chance to subside. And then it appeared. The beach. First as a shadow beneath the water, and finally as a small island that grew larger by the day. The sun warmed and dried the sand until it was golden.” This is a film-maker’s dream, surely.
Some have noted that Laestadius’ critically-acclaimed first adult novel, that hit the No.1 best-seller spot in Sweden, still retains the child or young adult genre of her previous books. I think, in fact, that Laestadius has been clever in transferring her writing skills to an older adult market by making the central character a child, and in telling the story first through her young eyes and then ten years later when she comes of age. This creates a distance between her and her younger self which invites us as readers to look back and reflect. We may even shout out loud at the page or the characters as we go along. I found myself doing this when I read about the police interrogation methods, which left me suspicious of trick questions, lies, hidden facts, of craftily placed clues and cleverly employed tactics. Perhaps there is even corruption when the murder of an animal is recorded as theft, which raises an issue of trust within Swedish legislation that is skillfully evoked by Laestadius. She has also crafted an Elsa who is potentially a heroine at the age of 9, through whom we learn the essence of, and what lies in, the beating heart of the Sámi people. They must fight to defend themselves against their own vulnerability, against prejudice and violence, their young women facing the additional challenge of living in a culture in which they are relegated to the sidelines. There are issues surrounding life choices and mental health.
Yet it is perhaps Elsa who dispels all that and this novel is perhaps a letter written to the younger generation, a legacy. Given the gift of time and distance spanning ten years, Stolen operates as a fable in which good overcomes bad. It contains timely messages which are woven throughout the book and which readers in today’s world might do well to heed: we should trust in nature, allow time to do its work.
The author has given us something that is so visual on the page it deserves to be experienced in film. She gives us a way of life, and there quite simply wouldn’t be a story if it wasn’t for Elsa’s reindeer calf Nástegallu, or the Sámi’s principles, faith, values, morals and beliefs – and of course that necessary something with which to shatter the silence of the snow. Symbolically snow represents purity, as magical and enchanting as it is.
It is one thing to have lost something, but quite another to have had it stolen and as such, the book’s title offers plenty of room for reflection. “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” Haraway has said. And it matters here that both the author and lead character are female, that together they portray a very unique, truly marginalised, misunderstood and compromised world. As Laestadius continues to explain, “I don’t have a language, and I don’t have any reindeer, but I have my heart which is very much Sámi. And no one can take that away from me.”
By Ann-Helén Laestadius,
Translated by Rachel Wilson-Boyles
Bloomsbury Pubishing, 401 pages
Barbara has a longstanding passion for language and the written word. A reader who writes, and a writer who reads, she freelanced her way in London for 8 years in PR, writing promotional campaigns, press releases, copy, slogans, etc., within the music and entertainment industry. She last promoted PR packages within the Press Association before full-time motherhood allowed Barbara to pursue her interest in Creative Writing. This creative enthusiasm led to 3 unfinished fiction novels. Now a mum to 3 teens, she has been a student on college and university courses as well as workshops and festivals, independently and online. A move to Devon saw her first flash fiction submission longlisted then shortlisted. Her work has regularly been published on Friday Flash Fiction (which also appears on Twitter) and has appeared on Paragraph Planet and several collections of new writing. In the pursuit of her true writing voice, she concentrates nowadays on Creative Non Fiction, where her experience and portfolio of work steers her organically towards memoir, essay-writing, journalism and reviews. On her writing to do list are more submissions and a blog; her TBR pile is ever-expanding. She is new to social media, but still into music, and a keen photographer, into pre-loved stuff and mental wellbeing, she is proud to have recently become a Litro contributor. Links to stories; http://www.paragraphplanet.com/jan1621.gif https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/birthday-days-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/hand-on-heart-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/on-the-horizon-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/clothesline-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/parking-meter-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/chocolate-box-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/way-to-go-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/potato-cakes-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/about-flash-fiction-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/gone-with-the-wind-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/case-study-body-parts-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/hope-by-barbara-wheatley http://www.paragraphplanet.com/jan1621.gif https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/postcard-news-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/come-home-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/oh-potter-by-barbara-wheatley