In God's Mercy, Kerstin Ekmanís bleak, slow-moving novel about a young midwife working in rural northern Sweden in the early 1900s, Hillevi struggles to understand the culture of the Sami reindeer herders. She is disgusted by the tobacco-chewing men and the animal skins hanging outside the village inn. She is frightened. Her shoulder blades ache from the chilling cold.
But brave, tenacious Hillevi is committed to caring for expectant mothers. Is she welcomed warmly? Greeted with tea and cakes? No way. What she finds is poverty, lurking and treacherous. Empty faces stare at her. The house where she is to live is poorly insulated. The Lapp men, mostly intoxicated, sit on the floor and smoke tobacco, laughing and cajoling.
Here is a novel whose beautiful, descriptive language floats on every page. Itís a story that purports to value the indigenous Sami herders while also valuing Hillevi and the work she tries to do there. And it celebrates compassion which identifies neglect and does not turn away but rescues a young girl from an ignorant, self-absorbed grandfather.
A brief word now about Ms. Ekman. She is recognized as a post-War novelist. During the 1960s, she first won attention as a writer of crime fiction. In the 1970s, she shifted her focus to narratives based on the struggles of the working-class women of the past and the present. Since the 1980s, her novels have been set primarily in rural locations and have attracted a large readership. She incorporates elements of fable and fantasy while basing her themes on social and environmental issues. She was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1978 but resigned her chair in 1989 to protest the Academyís weak defense of the author Salman Rushdie.
Expectations notwithstanding, Hillevi marries a shopkeeper and eventually has a child of her own to worry over. She is relieved when Tore is born bright and pink and healthy. She endures the scourge of an illness that threatens to claim his life and which leads her to a desperate act she would not normally consider. At school, Tore is bullied because his father sells pork for a living. As he grows into a young man, Hillevi cringes at the influence the crude habits of the poor have had on Tore. He drops out of school to join the logging team and prepare for the future of managing the land he will inherit.
But Tore isnít Hillevi and Trondís only child. Meat Mickel Larsson owns a smokehouse and complains that everyone is always telling lies about the Lapps. After his daughter, Ingir Kari, dies at the sanatorium in Stromsund, Hillevi decides to go to the settlement to see where Mickel Larsson lived and see how he and the little girlís young uncle were managing to look after Ingirís daughter. She finds the little girl standing outside the smokehouse, staring. She is frightened, not having ever seen anyone who looked like Hillevi before. She is covered with ugly sores, probably from dog bites. She reeks of smoke, stands half-naked in the chilly wind and is severely undernourished. Mickel refuses to let Hillevi take the child with her, but the town intervenes and Kristen is to be sent into foster care.
Hilleviís many flaws make it easy for readers to relate to her. She makes herself the judge of each of the bookís characters, Sami and white. She sounds snobbish when Tore tells her about how he enjoys his work, and she worries about her husbandís business. She is an everywoman, a mother, daughter, and a friend to those in need.
Such talk about mothers and families isnít delivered in this novel with the sort drama one finds in movies and television. Rather it oozes throughout a novel about relationships so finely woven together that it leaves a softness of the warmth and love of people coming together. The stories of each person are so interweaved that it is one story, in one wilderness. It is a story about families, about expectations and alienation delivered by an act of redemption and beauty. In this book, the interconnectedness of people and events is formed in a way that could be interpreted as spiritual. Highly recommended.