Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North

 Robert Ferguson, Overlook Press, 480 pages, $23.

Norway, Sweden and Denmark consistently rank at or near the top in global surveys of national contentment, prosperity and well-being. The other side of the coin projects a conflicting image: a dark and cold land beset with melancholy and gloom. Robert Ferguson, a British-born scholar, brings an outsider’s perspective to the place he fell in love with and made his permanent home when he was in his early 30s. His book is an idiosyncratic and digressive examination of Scandinavia’s history and culture that combines personal recollections with sometimes rambling conversations with authors, critics and artists, often conducted in cafes over beer and aquavit. He covers a span of roughly 1,500 years and sheds light on episodes unknown to readers not steeped in Scandinavian history.

Ferguson analyzes key chapters in that history, from the pre-Viking Vendel Period to the present, touching on Sweden’s brief emergence in the 17th century as a great power, the flow of emigrants who brought their culture to the farmland of America’s Midwest and Great Plains, and the vastly different experiences of Norway, Sweden and Denmark during World War II. “Scandinavians” is a delightful book chock-full of surprises, fascinating anecdotes and insights into the region’s rich history and culture. If the author’s digressions at times seem tiresome and clumsy, they advance his goal of painting a picture of what makes Danes, Swedes and Norwegians tick.