Wolf Winter won’t easily be erased from the reader’s mind

SET in Swedish Lapland in the winter of 1717, in a time and place so remote as to seem unearthly, Wolf Winter creeps up on the reader stealthily, like a silent fall of snow.

Wolf Winter

Cecilia Ekback

Hodder & Stoughton, €18.60, ebook €8.99

Review: Afric McGlinchey

Maija, her husband Paavo, and their two daughters, Frederika and Dorotea, have moved across the ice from Finland to settle in their uncle’s abandoned homestead at the foot of the remote and foreboding Blackasen Mountain.

With no work available, Paavo is forced to leave his family to go and look for work on the coast, leaving his wife and children to survive alone through a long and bitter winter, with only their goats to sustain them. One day, while goat-herding, the children come upon the mutilated body of a man. The initial assumption by the community is that he was killed by wolves, but Maija is convinced that he’s been murdered. The other settlers are resistant to this idea. After all, Maija is suggesting that one of them killed him. Nevertheless, fear ripples through the scattered community.

A priest, who has recently been posted to a village some distance away from Blackasen Mountain, is ordered by his bishop to get to the bottom of the killing and decides to go and meet the Laplanders, after the new settler, Maija, tells him that her daughter Frederika found a piece of blue glass near the body. The glass comes from the Laplanders.

The priest (whose name isn’t revealed until the last quarter of the book) asks Maija to escort him on his visit to the Laplanders. As she cannot leave her children alone while she accompanies him, they all ski over the mountain to the Laplanders’ location. The meeting proves fruitless, only creating further feelings of hostility, and embarrassment on the part of Maija. Caught in a snowstorm on their return, the priest is forced to spend the night with Maija and her children in her homestead.

Frederika gradually discovers that she has certain gifts, something the nomadic Laplanders recognise when they come to ask the family if they will look after two reindeers for them over the winter. When Frederika tries to talk to her mother about what is happening to her, Maija vociferously tells her to ignore it.

Nils, a nobleman with some influence, suggests that they move closer together, for protection. Maija suspects his motivation for wanting to build a village, and accuses him at a meeting. Immediately, the other settlers turn against her and isolate her. Even little Dorotea is avoided at school. The school master offers to give her private tuition one day a week.

Throughout, Maija has to remain strong, and even harsh, in her struggle to find food, cope with the bitter weather, and keep her family alive, while Frederika contends with wolves. There is no time here for self-pity or weakness. Every day is a fight for survival.

Their distant neighbours are phlegmatic, not offering a welcome to the new family, or support for a woman trying to manage alone, without her husband. It is only when the outspoken Maija confronts them that they must start facing their buried demons.

Cecilia Ekback has said in an interview that she re-wrote this book four times, each time setting it in a different era. The insights gained from such a detailed process have paid off. It’s been a long while since I have read such breathtaking, poetic prose. The story possesses the reader’s imagination with its visually acute observations and half-suggested secrets. With its spare, hypnotic language, Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter won’t easily be erased from the reader’s mind.


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