Hanna Pylväinen's "The End of Drum-Time" is the best type of historical fiction — electrifying, edifying and set in an utterly enthralling place and time that you would probably rather not experience firsthand, in this case the unforgiving expanse of Scandinavia north of the Arctic Circle in the early 1850s. (Seriously, no matter how bad winter hits this year, you'll feel positively coddled by comparison!)
More specifically, the setting is Sápmi, which in English has historically been called Lapland, though referring to the Sámi people as Lapps is now outmoded. Pylväinen's deeply researched exposition is interwoven throughout her narrative, and depicts Sámi life in fascinating richness and detail. In the 1850s, Sámi fortunes were tied to reindeer, which "were not merely a measurement of wealth but wealth itself, life itself." Having lived in the area for centuries, they survived being pushed ever farther north "by seeming to go along with the rotating powers outwardly while inwardly [doing] whatever they wanted." At the time, the powers doing the pushing are the kingdom of Sweden, which was then federated with Norway, and Finland, which was a territory of Russia.
Onto this grand and snowy stage, Pylväinen projects variations on timeless tales — an impassioned but ill-fated love affair, an exploration of finding and maintaining faith, and the struggles of indigenous people in the face of colonization. While the threads unravel into multiple strands, at the simplest level, the Swedes are represented by the Laestadius family, and the Sámis by the Rasti siida, where a siida is a community organized around a reindeer herd.
Lars Levi Laestadius was a real-life Lutheran missionary who focused his ministry on the local population in and around the "tiny church-village" of Garasavvon, located near the Swedish/Finnish border. Though he was a Swedish colonizer, Lars Levi was "half-Sámi by blood" and became a leader to many locals, "taking on the stuff of legend."
Biettar Rasti, who took to the bottle after his wife's death, is one of many Sámi "awakened" by Lars Levi's sermons. His rebirth leaves his son Ivvár to deal with the Rastis' reindeer, a herd so laughably small it was "not even a herd, it was a small flock; it was an embarrassment." Ivvár, who also exacerbates his family's financial precarity by drinking on credit, is "much too good-looking" and very aware of it. Lars' daughter Willa, a young woman who previously "had no rebellion in her … or none that she had ever exercised," is increasingly aware of Ivvár, as well. As the embers of their attraction are stoked by innocent flirtation, Willa finds herself wanting "to make a mistake, a good and large mistake …want[ing] him to be worth a tragedy."
Pylväinen positively shines throughout, whether portraying the day-to-day activities of the Sámi or the all-consuming romance between Willa and Ivvár. The late introduction of an almost comically evil but unquestionably realistic villain changes the novel's tenor, but given its overall scope, the episode simply feels like the flashy finale for a saga that you will desperately wish was already renewed for another season.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
The End of Drum-Time
By: Hanna Pylväinen.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 368 pages, $28.99.