For the love of the reindeer: review of Stolen by Sami author Ann-Helén Laestadius

The Sami author’s real life-inspired portrayal spotlights a community on the margins

April 14, 2023 09:45 am | Updated 06:21 pm IST

The Sami community lives in villages north of the Arctic circle in Scandinavia, and herd reindeer in their own collectives. 

The Sami community lives in villages north of the Arctic circle in Scandinavia, and herd reindeer in their own collectives.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Swedish Sami journalist and writer Ann-Helén Laestadius’s novel Stolen is about snow-filled landscapes, indigenous minorities and reindeer. The Sami community lives in villages north of the Arctic circle in Scandinavia. 

They herd reindeer in their own collectives. They move the animals between pastures through large areas of land. But this land is required by mining companies and others. The Sami culture and values are under constant threat. There are pressures on them due to global warming as well.

The story begins with nine-year-old Elsa who is skiing on her own, heading to the forest from her home. Her family lives in a remote part of the North. She thinks she is alone till she sees a snowmobile. Elsa spots a man she knows, with a bloody knife in his hand, his mouth holding a slice of something soft, part of a reindeer’s ear. The ear has been marked to show which herd it belongs to.

The man finds Elsa looking at him and threatens her with death before leaving. To her horror, Elsa finds he has killed Nástegallu, her pet reindeer. When he goes away, he drops the cut ear, which Elsa picks up. She swears she will kill him one day. He is Robert Isaksson. Everybody knows Isaksson is a reindeer killer.

Elsa’s father takes her to the police station. She is too scared to mention the killer’s name and the case is closed. Life moves on although the trauma stays with Elsa. The soft ear of the reindeer becomes a treasured possession. There are more reindeer killings followed by more indifference. Outsiders look down upon the Samis and think of their animals as a menace as they sometimes cause damage to vehicles.

A community on the brink

Elsa’s family and the others often get anonymous phone calls when their reindeer come in the way of motorists. This, despite herders always putting up warning signs whenever there might be reindeer running loose near the corral. “Black garbage bags fluttered and snapped in the wind attached to the orange reflective stakes that lined the road. But still some drivers shifted into higher gear.” 

Most of them slowed down, turned on their high beams, and kept a sharp eye on the forest. But others did not want to listen to the “Lapps”. The term “Lapp” is a slur. Why should they have to look out for the Lapps’ goddamn reindeer?

Some in the community are not able to cope with the prejudice, with little hope for the future. Anxiety and depression are prevalent among the Samis, and according to Laestadius, suicide is something that every Sami family has been through. In the novel, Elsa too has to deal with the suicide of a much loved young man, which leaves another scar on her.

She grows up to be a strong young woman who chooses to stay back in her village as she does not want to leave her beloved reindeer. Most of the drama takes place in the second half of the book leading to an action-packed denouement.

Stolen moves at a leisurely pace. Although it drags now and then, it makes up for it with its wonderful descriptive prose. It paints word pictures bringing alive a different way of life. 

Ann-Helén Laestadius
Bloomsbury Circus
₹543.14 (Kindle)

The reviewer is a Chennai-based journalist and author.

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