The Reindeer Hunters and The Bell in the Lake

Second novel in Lars Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy carries on with strength

After reading The Bell in the Lake and finding much to love about author Lars Mytting’s world building of the Norwegian village of Butangen with its superstitions, mythology, and legends, I promptly began reading the second book in the trilogy, The Reindeer Hunters. This latest book in the Sister Bells trilogy—released in English last fall—continues the story of the Hekne family through the next generation—that of Astrid’s twin boys.

Much has changed since 1880 when The Bell in the Lake took place, for both individual characters and society. The Reindeer Hunters spans 1903 through the end of World War 1, a time of great change and challenge for Norway. The primary character who bridges both books is Kai Schweigaard, the pastor of Butangen, who in the first book was a modern newcomer who rejected the villagers’ superstitions but comes to embrace the old ways and beliefs as he ages. Societally, the advances of hydroelectric energy railroads, and machinery for dairies changed work and life for many. 

Infusing fiction with a sense of time

I attended a virtual book club for the book hosted by Scandinavia House in New York City on February 7, 2023, then later that evening listened to that organization’s recorded author talk with Mytting from November 22, 2022. In the talk, Mytting discussed the process by which he married the storytelling with the major historical and societal changes happening in the book. He begins by playing with the characters, paying attention to them as though they have a will of their own. Then he goes back and looks at the major events that took place in history at the time of the story. Incorporating this research inevitably requires him to make many changes to the story and the laws of the novel, but it allows him to maintain his commitment to the story coming first.

In addition to major events, Mytting gets a feel for the mood of a time and place and what people were interested in by reading contemporary newspapers, sometimes even fiction contemporary to the time, although he would choose what ordinary people would be reading, not the now-classical works that mostly the educated would choose. Doing this for the early 20th century, when the events of this novel take place, was one thing. But when it came to exploring sources for the 1600s—the time of the Hekne sisters, whose famous weave is a major part of the book—he consulted the stories and texts of the country’s preachers to get a sense of the working conditions and the mindsets of the time. (As he pointed out, in rural areas, they would often have been the only people who could read and write, and their responsibilities included documenting the births and deaths, sometimes adding longer stories.)

I appreciate hearing about other authors’ processes, and I took away some practical ways I can add richness to my novel:

  • What would the characters in my book be reading? In the case of my novel-in-progress, my protagonist, Agneta, grew up steeped in Norwegian folktales and mythology, and these have already informed the book significantly. 
  • After writing, research the history and determine what additional layers this might add to my story.

Tapestries of history woven through The Reindeer Hunters

Regarding the text of the novel itself, motifs are a strong element in both of the Sister Bells books. In The Bell in the Lake, the sister bells were the primary motif, becoming a “controlling image,” as I wrote in my commentary on that novel. In this novel, the Hekne weave is the primary one (the book is called Hekneveven or The Hekne Weave in Norwegian, as opposed to The Reindeer Hunters in English). 

While this tapestry is introduced and certainly important in the first book, it takes on a greater role in book two. One of the reasons this lost tapestry is so important is that it is said to portray Skråpånatta, a Day of Judgment. Kai is determined to find the lost tapestry, to discover what future events it foretells. As Mytting discussed in the author talk, such tapestries go back to the pre-Viking times, when they would be unrolled to accompany storytelling, and also when women called norns would weave tapestries depicting a person’s fate or destiny. Though such tapestries are the primary way that textiles feature in the book, Mytting takes it further by exploring the importance of textiles beyond the Hekne weave as well. First, in Kai’s search for the Hekneweave, he finds a pillow with a tartan pattern, whose roots he tries to track down. The book takes place in the Gubrandsdal area of Norway, where in the 1612 Battle of Kringen, several hundred of Scottish mercenaries were killed, the clothes of the slain kept by Norwegians. This is believed to be the origin of the tartan pattern has become common in that region of Norway. 

One character explained,

“I think the pattern we see in our local folk costume is a legacy from the Battle of Kringen. Because it differs so greatly from most patterns elsewhere in the country. Our pattern is a tartan. A distinct weaving method. Mirrored around a central thread. And this is found only in the folk costumes of Gudbrandsdalen and Romsdalen, the exact same places where the Scots came. Ours is red and dark green, perhaps to symbolize the blood that was spilled.”

Chapter: The Woman Who Knew

The folk costume mentioned is the bunad, which is another way the author uses textiles to add depth and context to the story. The book opens in 1903, two years before Norway became independent from Sweden. The bunad—now commonly worn by Norwegians and Norwegian Americans for confirmations, festivals, weddings, and other celebrations—was a garment of rebellion at the time, which women would wear as a way to protest the Swedish union. That same character explained the importance of her work in textiles:

“not only to find the oldest costume designs across rural Norway, but what lies behind the colours and shapes. Patterns always attract interpretation, not that they have to mean anything, but they often have a clear narrative behind them, and that’s what we want to tap into. That’s how we can integrate our history, our land and our people. Showing our local histories. The Bunad will be a flag our people can wear!” 

Leaving the superstition to the reader

The two books ring loudly of superstition, and a member of the book club at Scandinavia House described it as magical realism. However, during his author talk, Mytting said that he does not insist that supernatural powers exist in these books, but that he allows his characters to believe they do. Similarly, he allows readers to make up their minds. To investigate how the author managed to do this, revisited some passages from the book.

Now and then he had a feeling something was happening. That his feet were somehow heavier as he stood here in the graveyard. That somebody was calling out to him. Though when he turned, there was no-one to be seen. No-one to be seen, but something to mark, just as the villagers claimed to have done through the years, when they said they heard the church bell ring from the depths of Lake Løsnes, calling out to her sister.

Chapter: The Thistle

In that passage, Kai is remembering Astrid, the woman he loved in the first book. Her death continues to haunt him all these years later. 

It came in flashes now, the sorrow. His memories no longer brought the same swingeing pain. He liked to sit before the fireplace in the drawing room, smoking and reading, preferably with an open window, so as to feel both the heat from the open fire and the refreshing evening chill. And sometimes she came to him, Astrid, a thickening in the shadows, a shift in the curtains, and he talked with her when things were tough or when he was happy, and sometimes she whispered to him, and other times she was dead.

Chapter: The Thistle

In these two passages, Astrid’s ghost or presence is suggested through Kai’s experience of grief, a feeling he’d have when sensing her presence. Whether that presence is real or not is left to the reader to decide.

Changing industry

One of the greatest delights (of many) while reading these two books has been the importance of the seter, or upland summer dairy farm, which figures largely in my own novel as well. A seter plays an even stronger role in The Reindeer Hunters than it did in The Bell in the Lake, and I was excited to learn more about the tasks and experiences of being a dairy maid at one of these seters from reading the book. As the author discussed, the steep terrain of Norway means that many farms do not have much room for their cattle to graze. So during the summer, they’d be led upland to the endless mountain fields. There, women—usually just one or two for a seter—would do the work of milking the cows, churning butter, and making cheese at these remote locations. It was hard, solitary work. So when machines became available to do much of the work—as they do in this book—it became revolutionary for the women who could now work an independent job with proper wages. As one character said, 

“Think o’ cheesemaking. Of the endless work. We dairymaids work wi’ our hands for hour upon hour. We churn the butter and crank the separator till our arms ache. We mun stand and stir the cheese till it be cold through, otherwise it turns grainy. ‘Tis dark by the time a dairymaid be done wi’ her work and she be quite outspent. All this dreary, tedious work can be done for us by electricity”

Chapter: The Dynamo Master

Essence of a time past

Finally, while reading these two books, I was struck by the “Norwegianness” of them. The author’s level of detail while worldbuilding contributes to a rich experience of being rooted in a time and place. During his author talk, Mytting described why The Reindeer Hunters is fitting for a North American audience as well as in Norway: The book takes place during the time of a great Scandinavian migration, so a lot of Norwegian Americans will find elements of that time period and its mood familiar from the stories that their families have passed down through the generations. No wonder I love these books so much. Mytting captures a Norwegianness that feels so much like the Norway that I have imagined as a child of a Norwegian father and Norwegian American mother.

Mytting, Lars. The Reindeer Hunters. Translated by Deborah Dawkin, MacLehose Press, 2022.

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