“Kitchie-Gami was colored golden, pink, silvery-white, sulfur-yellow, as well as a number of hues for which no words existed.” – Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams
Kitchie-Gami is the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. The lake is a gigantic, mysterious presence in The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl. The story takes place on Minnesota’s North Shore, where the land meets the water. It is here, amid a landscape densely covered in greenery and studded with dramatic waterfalls, Forest Service officer Lance Hansen makes a discovery of unparalleled horror: a body brutally savaged by an unknown killer. The victim is one of a pair of Norwegian tourists. He discovers both young men in peculiar circumstances.
Throughout the novel, Lance is haunted by his remembrance of the victim. Even worse, he is bedeviled by a nagging suspicion; namely, is the murderer really unknown? Or is he known only too well?
Lance Hansen is a melancholy, inward turning person, but he is not a cliche of the genre. Rather he is all too human, divorced and the father of Jimmy, a seven-year-old currently living with his mother on the Ojibwe Reservation. Lance has lived on the North Shore his entire life, yet as the drama of The Land of Dreams unfolds, he seems very solitary. His nagging fear concerning the identity of the killer serves to isolate him further from family and friends.
This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive. Here, Lance is recalling his impressions while driving south along Lake Superior, during the time of his courtship of Mary Dupree:
It was in the spring and summer that the beginning phase of their relationship unfolded. The evenings were long and bright,the lake and sky merging in a hallucinatory way so that it was impossible to see where on ended and the other began. The humidity from that enormous expanse of water filled the air with a delicate mist, and in the mist floated shades of yellow, pink, and blue, like watercolors, all of them illuminated by the evening sun hovering low in the sky. After the sun sank below the horizon, the colors darkened to violet and black.
Since both the murder victim and a potential suspect are Norwegian nationals, the decision is taken to have a Norwegian law enforcement officer flown in to assist in the investigation. Upon landing in Duluth, this is Eirik Nyland’s first impression:
In spite of the typical and anonymous scene that characterizes every airport, he had a distinct awareness that he was in the United States. Even in this small airport in Minnesota, he had the feeling of a smooth, carefully structured surface concealing a violent energy underneath.
In fact, Duluth turns out to be an interesting city. We get a glimpse of its impressive aquarium when Lance takes Jimmy there on a weekend outing. In addition, the rather amazing Aerial Lift Bridge crosses the canal that connects Lake Superior to the Duluth-Superior Harbor and the St. Louis River:
Like so many that live in the region of the North Shore, Lance Hansen is descended from Norwegian immigrants. He is an avid student of the region’s history and its people; indeed, this novel provides fascinating glimpses into that history. For instance, in the 1830s, John Jacob Astor financed a fishing concern on Lake Superior’s northern shore. A financial crash stopped the project in its tracks, yet at the same time it seemed to portend what the future would bring:
Gone were the voyageurs’ romantic songs and the Celtic strains from the Great Hall. Gone were the dairy cows, the pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and the crates of Portuguese wine. Gone were the European Crowns’ colorful flags and banners, the uniforms and drums, and cries of “God Save the King!”
Instead, something entirely different was approaching. Something that would redefine the land itself. The time of treaties was approaching. Legal provisos, signatures, and maps. Rivers and mountains and valleys were given new names. The flowers too. And the birds and fish. Everything had a new name, and the names were written down in books. And the world as it actually existed was erased and conjured into a dark spirit world.
What was approaching was the modern nation of the United States.
Since I’ve been praising the writing in The Land of Dreams, I should also praise the work of the translator, the redoubtable Tiina Nunnally. Now you may fairly ask yourself why a novel set in Minnesota needs to be translated into English. Here’s the answer: author Vidar Sundstøl is Norwegian; he writes, naturally enough, in that language. He and his wife came to live on the North Shore for two years. The result of this experience – or one of its results – is this novel, published in Norway in 2008, plus two others: Only the Dead and Ravens. Taken together, they constitute The Minnesota Trilogy. In this essay, the author provides some background on how the writing of these books came about. (According to Amazon, Only the Dead is due out here in October. No word yet on Ravens, or at any rate, none that I was able to find.)
The Land of Dreams is aptly titled. Dreams – the act of dreaming and the content of the dreams – appear and reappear throughout the narrative. Lance can recall significant dreams from his past but none from recent times. In fact, he believes that he’s lost the knack of dreaming completely. The last dream that he can remember having – and he remembers it vividly – dates from the time of his son Jimmy’s birth:
Seven years ago he’d dreamed he was standing at the deepest spot in Lake Superior. He thought he was going to freeze to death. At the same time, it was beautiful. A blue landscape he was convinced existed only in his dream. Now he stared out at the darkness enveloping the lake. Once upon a time this was a place where dreams determined a person’s path in life. The Ojibwe, before they became Christianized, were a people who interpreted dreams. Their names often came from dreams. They made dream catchers to protect themselves from nightmares, and they wore amulets that represented particularly significant dreams they’d had.
And now? Now there was a different kind of land out there.
Years ago, when researching the novels of Tony Hillerman, I came upon an article in which the author observed that the Native American peoples of the Southwest had taken that vast and dramatic landscape and absorbed into their own interior landscape. In The Land of Dreams, we see something akin to this phenomenon happening to those who dwell in the very different surroundings of the North Shore.
(Sundstøl has also managed to evoke in this reader in a deep desire to experience the North Shore at first hand. I know from my past travels that you don’t have to be a long time resident of a place in order to fall under its spell, especially if you have envisioned it beforehand. Years ago, my reading of Willa Cather, Tony Hillerman, and Judith Van Gieson strongly impelled me to go to New Mexico. I was already half in love with the place before I got there. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.)
Because Vidar Sundstøl’s writing is so straightforward and lacking in showiness, the events of the novel seem to unfold naturally and inevitably. He delivers profundity by means of understatement. All this against a backdrop of boreal forest, rivers and waterfalls, and the great, unknowable Kitchie-Gami itself.
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead…” (from ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ by Gordon Lightfoot).