The remains of a wharf’s stone pilings protrude from Lake Superior “like the vertebrae of a broken spine, as if just below the surface there might be the skeleton of some huge ancient monster.”
This striking description in the opening pages of “The Land of Dreams” (translated by Tiina Nunnally, University of Minnesota Press, $24.95), an engrossing mystery that’s the first in Norwegian writer Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, foreshadows the novel’s most gripping theme: that history can be like an “ancient monster” hiding, waiting, unseen and unspoken, until a storm exposes it — and then we must confront that which we’ve silenced, ignored or simply forgotten.
Such a storm comes to Lance Hansen, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants and a police officer with the Superior National Forest Service. Called to investigate an illegal campsite on the North Shore near Father Baraga’s Cross at Schroeder, Hansen finds two naked men, Norwegian tourists, one catatonic and seated at the foot of the cross and the other savagely murdered at their nearby campsite. Because Father Baraga’s Cross rests on federal land, the FBI leads the investigation, and because the victims are foreign tourists, Norwegian detective Eirik Nyland arrives to assist.
Hansen is also the archivist for the area’s historical society (the myths and the rich history of the area are integral to the narrative). While he investigates up and down the North Shore, he wonders when the last murder was recorded in that area. Delving into county records and his own ancestors’ diaries and letters, Hansen learns that an Ojibwe medicine man, Swamper Caribou, disappeared from his hunting cabin near the mouth of the Cross River over a century ago and was never seen again.
While assisting Nyland to solve the murder, Hansen digs into history (his and the region’s), deciding that Father Baraga’s Cross may be a link between the Norwegian tourist’s slaying and the mysterious disappearance of the Ojibwe medicine man.
Hansen is a fascinating and original character. A product of his family’s rich heritage in the region, he is especially proud that his only child is a “genuine son of the North Shore” because he’s a mix of Ojibwe, French and Norwegian. Divorced and lonely, Hansen finds comfort in the lives of his ancestors. The other characters in this novel are Lake Superior itself and Minnesota’s North Shore. Stretching from Duluth to Grand Portage, encompassing “foaming white waterfalls,” picturesque coves and tight-knit communities like Tofte and Lutsen, the landscape shapes the novel’s action and motivates its characters, leaving readers in no doubt that the author, who lived there for two years, loves this land.
In the end, as Hansen moves closer to solving the mystery in the past and the one in the present, that “ancient monster” slowly crawls from the deep and Hansen realizes history must be rewritten.
Carole E. Barrowman is co-author of the “Hollow Earth” series. She teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee.