Sense of place is not just a combination of geography and culture, it is a synergy of the two. Swedish author Kerstin Ekman doesn't seek to describe sense of place in her novel God's Mercy. She does something far more difficult. Sense of place so permeates the novel it moves from being a setting to almost its own unspoken character.
God's Mercy is a captivating tale of life in northern Sweden in the early part of the 20th Century. Hillevia is a young, recently educated midwife who moves from Uppsala, a university town just north of Stockholm, to a forested area of northern Sweden called Blackwater in March 1916. It is amidst and inhabited by the Sami people, known to English speakers as Lapps. Life is not easy here. It is a land where there are eight seasons, each of which dictate the rhythm of survival and existence. Life here, Hillevia notes several years later, is "full of invisible agreements among the people," agreements that are "in a language etched into the very earth." The people live largely from working timber or herding reindeer. Not only do economic strata arise, so do language and cultural differences among the Norwegians, Swedes, and Lapps, the last often viewed as inferior.
When Hillevia is called on for her first delivery, it is at the home of a poor family in a remote village. The family patriarch is less than pleased by or accommodating to Hillevia's presence. She is a newcomer, an outsider, intruding upon those who are outsiders themselves. The experience and its aftermath change her and the life of a boy in the house, Elis. Elis runs away from his family. Hillevia is left questioning the nature and extent of God's mercy.
The novel follows both Hillevia and Elis over the next several decades. There are two narrative perspectives for Hillevia's story. One is hers, the other is Risten, a younger woman whose relationship to Hillevia is not made clear until later in the novel. Hillevia comes to develop her own sense of place there, loving the area and its people, even marrying and having a family. Yet some still view her as an outsider, a transplant from a higher social and economic class who is not part of their sense of place. The concept not only is the stage on which the story is played out but helps portray the people and Hillevia.
Elis' story, meanwhile, has echoes of a Dickens character, as he combats abuse, illness, and poverty to become an artist. He, too, is an outsider but in the reverse of Hillevia's. Despite his talent, he struggles for acceptance in the cities and among the urbane society to which his art introduce him. His character, though, does not feel as developed and real as Hillevia's and he can come off as almost a tangential part of the story. Yet Eckman's time developing Hillevia's story and the sense of place that imbues it is time very well spent.
The book, translated by Linda Schenk, is the first in Ekman's "Wolfskin" trilogy. The other two novels follow the destinies of the characters in God's Mercy, and their descendants, through the end of the 20th Century. Ekman has been widely translated and Blackwater is the locale for and title of what is perhaps her best known novel in the U.S., a detective thriller. God's Mercy is her first work in the European Women Writers Series published by the University of Nebraska Press and is certainly a worthy addition.