The Danish response to Nazi Germany before and during World War II forms the backdrop for this coming-of-age novel—first published in 1996 in Norway—that covers 13 years in the life of a young girl.
The unnamed narrator and her adored older brother Jesper grow up in a rural Danish village with their stern but deeply loving father Magnus, a struggling humpbacked carpenter, and their musical, fanatically religious mother Marie. In 1934 Magnus takes the family on a short beachside vacation that goes awry but that plants the idea of travel in the narrator’s head. She begins to dream quixotically of escaping to Siberia, of all places; Jesper, more understandably, fantasizes about Morocco. Then the children’s grandfather hangs himself. They are told that Magnus chose to leave their wealthy grandfather’s farm for town life. In fact, Magnus was forced off the farm and now the old man has bequeathed him nothing. Magnus’s carpentry shop fails, and Marie begins to run a dairy the family must live above, but in a case of poetic justice, hoof and mouth disease eventually makes the farm worthless. While in middle school, the narrator shares her first kiss with Ruben, a Jewish boy. Jesper, now a printer’s apprentice with a wicked sense of humor, becomes a socialist. He dreams of fighting in Spain although he’s still too young. When the Germans arrive in Denmark, most of the narrator’s friends and family join the resistance. Ironically, Jesper fights a German soldier while the narrator saves one from drowning. The Gestapo takes control of the town. Jesper sneaks into Sweden with Ruben’s family. By 1947, the narrator is pregnant and living in Norway. She has not seen Jesper, who somehow made it to Morocco, for four years. She returns home expecting a reunion that never happens.
A spare, lyrical novel from Norwegian author Petterson (Out Stealing Horses, 2007, etc.) that possesses historical breadth and a remarkable sense of immediacy.