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Book Review: ‘The Land of Dreams’ by Vidar Sundstol (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

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Investigating a tent illegally set up on Federal parkland around Lake Superior in Minnesota, U. S. Forest Service Officer Lance Hansen discovers a young man naked, bloody and apparently in a state of shock. He tries to question the man, but he only mutters a few words in a foreign language, before running off into the woods. Hansen gives chase, only to discover another naked young man stretched out nearby, a young man dead with his head horribly bashed in. So begins award winning Norwegian thriller writer Vidar Sundstol’s prize winner, The Land of Dreams.

From its rapid-fire set up, readers might well be expecting the typical fast paced crime novel filled with a lot of blood and guts. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your taste, that’s not what you get. Lance Hansen is not your typical hard-nosed investigator. Indeed, he is hardly an investigator at all. His biggest concerns are unlicensed fishing and teen age vandalism; murder is somebody else’s business. Yet it is Hansen, and the effects of this murder on him and his family that is at the center of Sundstol’s novel. The Land of Dreams is a psychological study of the man and the moral problems raised by the murder and the various discoveries he inadvertently, often accidentally, makes about it. Far from rapid fire, the story progresses at a leisurely cerebral pace.

sundstolSince the murder took place on Federal land the FBI takes over the investigation. When it is quickly discovered that the two young men are Norwegian tourists, a detective from Norway, Eirik Nyland is flown in to help out. Sundstol, however, is little concerned with the actual investigation. Indeed, the actual FBI agents play a very small role in the story. It is Hansen who is the novel’s center.

Set on the North Shore of Minnesota, the focus of much of nineteenth century Scandinavian immigration, the novel is much more concerned with depicting the history and culture of those immigrants, the natives that were displaced and their descendants, than it is with describing the procedures in a murder investigation. Hansen, it turns out, is the local expert on the area’s history and an amateur genealogist. He himself is a descendant of Norwegian immigrants, and he is connected to the area natives through his ex-wife, an Ojibwe Indian. In a sense, he provides an inside view. Nyland, the Norwegian detective, provides the outsider’s point of view.

Taken together, they paint a complex picture of the area and its effects on those who inhabit it. Sundstol is especially good with the detail. Whether he has Hansen explaining the legend surrounding Baraga’s Cross, a cross erected in the woods near the lake, the history of the fur trade and its portage problems, or the disappearance of an Indian medicine man, both the author and his character seem obsessed with the past and its effects on the present. While this is the kind of narrative interpolation that slows the pace of the novel, here it is fundamental as a kind of cultural remembrance of things past.

He is good with the detail about the present as well. They drink Misabi Red and munch on Old Dutch Potato Chips. They eat at Sven and Ole’s, and we hear a Sven and Ole joke. They read out advice from Dove Chocolate wrappers. They visit the Duluth Aquarium and drive past the Two Harbors roadside rooster. These are the kinds of realistic details that bring the novel to life. Sundstol knows what he is talking about; he clearly knows the area and its people.

The Land of Dreams is the first volume in Sundstol’s “Minnesota Trilogy.” It is the first of the three books available in the U. S. in a translation by Tiina Nunnally. And therein lies the biggest problem with the book. Readers will finish the novel with a lot of unanswered questions, and it seems that unless one reads Norwegian, those questions will remain unanswered, at least for the present. That the reader is disappointed that everything is not tied up as tightly as one might like is evidence of the author’s success in making him care about his characters. That those answers are not yet available at the local bookstore is disappointing, although disappointment is clearly a better reaction than indifference.

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