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Straff review

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Issue number: 2023:1




by Ann-Helén Laestadius
reviewed by Fiona Graham

In Stöld (Stolen), Ann-Helén Laestadius depicted hate crime against a contemporary Sámi community. In Straff (Punishment), she steps back into twentieth-century history to show how the state itself once discriminated against those it defined as ‘genuine’ Sámi (reindeer herders) by making them send their children away to board at ‘nomad schools’. Not only did they not learn how to read and write in their native language, they could actually be punished for speaking it at school. Their culture was devalued and disparaged. And, like many children removed from the family home and packed off to boarding school (including those institutions that educate a social elite), they often bore the psychological – and sometimes physical – scars many decades later. 

The novel operates at two time levels: the early to mid-1950s and the mid-1980s. Focusing on five main characters, all pupils at a 1950s ‘nomad school’ with a particularly inhuman matron, it follows their lives thirty years on, as they grapple in their different ways with the impact of childhood trauma. Each chapter revolves around one of the characters, so that the reader sees certain events from a variety of points of view. Four of the characters are fairly sympathetic, but one – Nilsa – is a merciless bully who makes the smaller boys’ lives a misery and sexually assaults girls. Nothing is done to protect the other pupils against Nilsa or to correct his behaviour, so thirty years later we see the cycle of violence continue.

While the other characters find ways to survive and adapt, they continue to suffer in various ways from the legacy of their boarding school experiences. By her early forties, Elsa-Maj is a mother-of-three in a reindeer-herding family, with Sámi as the family language. She has embraced her culture and traditions and passed them on to the next generation. Yet she remains scarred by the early loss of her beloved younger sister, a victim of the matron’s culpable neglect. After the departure of Anna, a young employee who has been a kind of substitute mother, Elsa-Maj feels quite alone, and in adult life she seems emotionally stunted. Ann-Risten has taken the opposite path, marrying a man who wants nothing to do with her Sámi culture and bringing her children up as monoglot Swedish speakers. But assimilation does not bring contentment. Her constant fear of being ‘outed’ as Sámi manifests itself in numerous physical ailments, and her teenage daughter despises her.

In the figures of Marge and Jon-Ante, Laestadius shows how early trauma can affect people’s ability to form trusting relationships with the opposite sex – but also offers hope for the future. After years of humiliation, bullying and physical abuse at boarding school, Jon-Ante has left his reindeer-herding family to work in the Kiruna iron mine. When we meet him in the mid-1980s, he boasts a showy American car – the main attribute of the raggare subculture – but has not been able to form any lasting romantic relationship. Marge, for her part, has adopted a little girl from Colombia. The boarding school has eaten away her self-esteem to such an extent that she considers herself both too unattractive to marry and an inadequate mother. Yet ultimately the adoption will work out well, and she and Jon-Ante will form a deep attachment.

This novel, the second part of Laestadius’s Sápmi trilogy, makes a significant contribution to understanding the destructive impact of racist ideology on Sámi people, culture and society in the twentieth century. Yet it is far from being a straightforward political pamphlet. Laestadius’s portrayals of the Sámi characters are psychologically acute and compassionate – even in the case of the violent bully Nilsa. The chapter-by-chapter focus on individual characters enables the reader to understand and empathise, to a degree, with each one. There is one notable exception: the sadistic matron. For those who refuse to acknowledge and atone for the evils of the past, there can be no redemption, only punishment of one kind or another.

Woman with dark hair in traditional Sami dress standing in front of blue-tinged snowy background.
Ann-Helén Laestadius. Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi.


Romanus & Selling, 2023

428 pages (including acknowledgements and Sámi glossary)

Foreign rights: Kaisa Palo, Ahlander Agency

Ann-Helén Laestadius’s Tio över ett (Ten Past One) won the 2016 August Prize for the best Swedish children’s / YA novel and the 2017 Norrland Literature Prize. She has written 10 books for younger readers.

A translation from Tio över ett by A.A. Prime appeared in SBR 2018:1.

Laestadius’s first novel for adults, Stöld (Stolen) has been widely translated. A review by Fiona Graham appeared in SBR 2021:2.