Wolf Winter is a Swedish phrase, Vargavinter, which means a particularly harsh winter. It can also mean the darkest time of a person’s life. In this book, set in the far north of Sweden in the year 1717, the winter plays a huge role, dominating the lives and the outlook of a small group of settlers who live on Blackåsen Mountain.
A body is found high on the mountain, and it seems that everyone who lives there is a suspect, or has a motive to kill the man. Maija and her family are newly arrived from Finland and her inquisitive nature means that she has to find the answer. In the nearest village, a day’s walk away, the local priest is also being told to find out exactly what happened.
Wolf Winter is a beautifully written book, its imagery is skilfully crafted so that when at last the winter comes you know exactly how important it is to keep clearing the snow away from a front door that opens outwards, or risk being trapped for weeks. I loved the descriptions and the little details, such as when Maija first arrives she takes the moss out of the cracks in the wooden boards of the house, to let the air blow through.
Ultimately this tale is about the clash between Christianity and the forces of both evil and magic that are said to dwell on the mountain. Dark secrets are hidden everywhere and the more Maija looks, the more she puts herself and her daughters in danger. The harshness of the winter and the spirits that lurk in the dark forests are everywhere around, keeping the family in a constant fight for survival. The spirit of Eriksson, the dead man, is everywhere, as are the wolves. All of them occupy a place in peoples’ imaginations and sometimes it is hard to tell what is real and what is just a shadow in the forest.
As winter arrives, so do the Lapps from the north, bringing their herds of reindeer away from the worst of the weather. They also bring their own mix of paganism and shamanism. They too had reasons for wanting to get rid of Eriksson.
This is probably not a book to read in the heat of our New Zealand summer, but one to save until winter-time, when there is a frost on the ground and a warm fire to read in front of. The long dark evenings will help you imagine a cold, cold winter far away to the north.