My husband, naturally, looked confused.
“I’ve lived for 35 years in a house where everyone else is Scandinavian!” I said. “And for all we know, my Scottish ancestors owed more than a few of their genes to the Vikings.”
He continued to look confused.
“True—” I walked around the room, stopping to look at the plaque that says ‘Tack För senast.’ “—my mysteries aren’t set in any of the Scandinavian countries, and my main characters are of Ukrainian and Jamaican ancestry, but surely there’s been some kind of Scandinavian influence on me in all those years!”
He nodded politely, and picked up a Dr. Seuss book to read to Leif.
And I began the fascinating, never-before-attempted task of analyzing the extent of that presumed Scandinavian influence on me and my writing.
My husband’s mother’s parents, Jacob and Agnes Nelson, came to North America from Norway as children. His father’s parents, Peter and Emma Lindquist, came from Sweden. All four ended up in Saskatchewan, where they met and married their spouses, farmed, and raised their families.
I married into the family when I was 24, but in 35 years, I’d never considered the effect they’ve had on me. Until now.
Of course, I can’t speak for all Scandinavian people; only the ones I’ve had personal contact with, but what strikes me the most, and what I think has probably had the biggest cumulative effect on me and my writing, is the contrast between their extremely practical nature with its sober integrity, and their love of fun and frivolous things. How else do you explain a people who eat both lutefisk and rosettes? One a plain cod fish, soaked in lye for preservation; the other a delightful deep-fried concoction of flour, sugar, and eggs with almond flavoring that has nothing to justify it except its wonderful taste?
I don’t associate fiction, including mysteries, with my husband’s family. It’s almost as if they’re too practical for such things. I know there are Scandinavian mystery writers, and I’ve even read some of their books, but for me there’s almost a disconnect. The Scandinavian people I’ve known love to tell stories, but the stories are usually true ones, with only a little exaggeration. There’s a reverence for the past, for the heritage that’s brought them this far, and a confidence in the future. And most of the stories show their very practical, “If it has to be done, let’s get to it,” philosophy.
Stories – all of them true – leap to my mind….
My father-in-law loved reading and would have preferred to go to university, but as the only son, he had to take over the farm when his father died. It was poor farm land, and he had to work long hours, doing jobs that didn’t come naturally. His carpentry skills were limited, too, but with four young children, they desperately needed a new house. There was no money to pay anyone else. So my mother-in-law decided to build the house herself. With only a young girl to help with the children, my mother-in-law nailed the walls together on the ground during the day and had her husband help her put them in place in the evening. Slowly but surely, she built a house.
When her fourth child was born with cerebral palsy, my mother-in-law did everything she could to help him. She even invented a type of walker so that he could get around.
At the age of 60, she decided it was time she learned to swim, and at 85, she continues to swim laps several times a week.
Her sister became a doctor at age 50 after deciding nursing was too restrictive.
I’ll never forget going over to visit Les’s Norwegian grandparents, then in their late 80s, only to find the two of them alone at the church manse, up on a ladder painting the ceiling to get the house spruced up for the new pastor.
Or Les’s Swedish grandmother, also in her 80’s, determined to keep on crocheting and knitting sweaters and other items for other people even though she could barely see and had to have someone sit beside her reading the instructions.
And then there’s the story of how his Swedish grandfather actually changed his name after coming to Canada. You see, there were two Peter Peterson’s in Swift Current Saskatchewan, and the mail was getting mixed up. So our Peter Peterson simply changed his name to Lindquist, which means “from the linden tree.” (Apparently there were quite a few linden trees where he grew up.) And he had no more difficulty getting his mail.
Any time I start to think I can’t do something, I recall some of these stories and realize I can do anything if I want to enough.
The Scandinavian people I know have a great love for good food. I have to say that the recipes passed down to me by Les’s grandmothers, aunts, and mother are, for the most part, quite elaborate, and often require special equipment: a variety of different implements for deep-frying rosettes and timballs, a krumkake iron, lefse grills, molds for kransekake (a totally neat layered cake in the shape of a Christmas tree), special tart pans for sandbakkeles, several types of lefse rollers, etc. etc. The contract between the practicality and even stoicism on one side and the amount of time and effort the women were willing to spend creating these very elaborate (and very good-tasting), but highly transient delicacies has always amazed me.
Krumkake (crumb cake), for instance, requires a round iron something like a waffle iron except flat. You put a little of the dough in the middle of the sizzling hot iron, then close the iron and flatten the dough. After a minute or so, you carefully take out the flat piece of krumkake and roll it on a special round wooden spindle, then let it cool to make a spiral log-like item. You don’t just make one, but dozens. And trust me, it can keep you hopping! All very time-consuming.
And I wonder how to explain the two sides—the practical and the impractical—except, perhaps, to say that we all need both. We need the serious moments and we need the frivolous, fun times, too.
And you’re thinking, what has any of this to do with my writing mysteries?
Up until now, I’d have said not much. I’d have said nothing. The biggest influences on my style of writing were the books I’d read by Christie, Heyer, and the like. But in the past month, I’ve come to realize that a good deal of my interest in people, and what makes them tick, has come, not from the books I’ve read, but from the people I’ve come to know in my extended Scandinavian family. I’ve realized that everyone (and I mean everyone) has a story to tell; that sometimes there are contradictions; and that circumstances affect people, but no more than people affect circumstances. And I am inordinately pleased that reviewers of my latest book, Glitter of Diamonds, have noted both the humor and the compassion in it. Yes, there’s a murder and all that encompasses, but far more important to me than whether or not people like my writing is that we all recognize that every person has a story to share, and that every story matters.
So, to my Scandinavian family, who welcomed me without reservation, “Tack För senast” (thanks for the hospitality).
N. J. Lindquist
N. J. is teaching a workshop for writers and aspiring writers in Barrie, ON on Saturday, Nov. 15th - Recycle Your Personal Experiences