Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, this richly detailed novel of love and loss was inspired by the life of the author's great-great-aunts.
Oleanna and her sister Elisabeth are the last of their family working their farm deep in the western fjordland. A new century has begun, and the world outside is changing, but in the Sunnfjord their world is as small and secluded as the verdant banks of a high mountain lake.
The arrival of Anders, a cotter living just across the farm's border, unsettles Oleanna's peaceful but isolated existence. Sharing a common bond of loneliness and grief, Anders stirs within her the wildness and wanderlust she has worked so hard to tame.
When she is confronted with another crippling loss, Oleanna must decide once and for all how to face her past, claim her future, and find her place in a wide new world.
This lovely little novel was my introduction to Norwegian historical fiction, and I really enjoyed it. It's a beautifully written story crafted around characters based on the authors ancestors, Oleanna and Elizabeth, two sisters left holding the pieces of their family's farm after a series of tragedies. Oleanna is the older sister, a young woman struggling to hold on to the only way of life she's ever known while the lure of the ever-widening world and the opportunities it holds draws her friends and loved ones away. As Norway stands on the verge of becoming an independent nation and radical new ideas--along with a handsome, mysterious new neighbor--make their way into her secluded valley paradise, Oleanna is forced to admit her own curiosity about a rapidly changing world and the possibility of another life that could be passing her by.
This novel is so very atmospheric, bringing the mountain and the lake and the sleepy little village in Sunnfjord to life so much that it becomes a character itself, the perfect setting to display her human characters to their best advantage, particularly Oleanna. She's such a study in contradiction: Devoting herself to the hard work of her farm, she allows herself little room for joy, and yet she is able to appreciate the joy in everything around her. She is wise beyond her years and yet at times infuriatingly childish. Full of hope and wonder of the unknown world yet too afraid to let go of the ghosts that tether her. A supportive sister and loving aunt, an enigma to other villagers, and a wild nymph of the forest to her new friend Anders, an older man starting over in life who is seduced by her unaffected charm and beauty. She's flawed and glorious and I found much in her to admire. I also found myself unable to put down her story as events combined to force Oleanna out of her sheltered existence and onto an exciting and frightening path to discover what is real, what is important, and what is worth fighting for.
It's not often you'll hear me complain that a book is too short, but in this case, I liked it so much that I wanted more. A little more backstory and revelation could have fleshed out some of the supporting characters and given them a bit more depth and motivation, and I wouldn't have minded a little more historical context either. But Oleanna is more than enough to carry the story on her own, the setting is fresh and inspiring, and the love story is both tender and tumultuous. I was also very impressed with Ms. Rose's ability to write honestly and naturally and yet so evocatively that it verges on poetic. And her author's note at the end cinched it for me with an old letter that brought tears to my eyes, a sweet homage to the natural magic of the land that had such a hold on Oleanna. Oleanna was a very different read for me, and very satisfying, and one I would recommend to anyone looking for a change of pace in historical fiction.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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