A brooding, often beautiful tale of life in the Far North and the immigrant experience.
A former journalist, the author knows how to work a source and analyze the data, but family stories are another matter, particularly in a family of abundant secrets. Her kin were bound together, she writes, “by an unacknowledged credo: if a thing remains unspoken, it does not exist; if pain is given no voice, it lacks power to harm.” Both principles are at work in Torvik’s first novel—billed as fiction, it seems, only because certain liberties have been taken when the facts have not been available. The hinge of the story is great-grandpa Nikolai, who, much to the chagrin of these status-conscious Norwegians, hails from Finland. “Being a Finn was shameful, I knew, though it wasn’t clear why,” the author comments, and Nikolai lives up to this perception by leaving his wife and unborn daughter behind to go off to America to make a fortune that became the stuff of legend. Not everyone back home shares his certainty that great riches are to be found along the salmon-heavy Columbia River, but they’re all interested, especially because so many live in grinding poverty. Suspicious of each other as much as of outsiders, the close-lipped clan keeps its secrets. “Most people don’t ask,” says Berit, whose story forms the middle section of the three-part narrative. “They don’t want to hear the truth. They can’t bear to hear it.” The taciturnity serves the family well under the Nazi occupation of Norway, but nagging uncertainty over Nikolai’s disappearing act, and whether he indeed became rich, provides the occasion for a parallel journey, as Torvik’s parents emigrate to the United States, leaving it to her to sort out how to become an American teenager and to reckon with the unsettling discoveries she makes in a new land.
Cheerless but memorable; an update of Knut Hamsun and Ole Rölvaag with more whispers than cries.