Book Review: The Dala Horse takes readers for a ride
Arden Hills, Minn.
Norwegian immigrants found Texas quite different from Norway. Work wasn’t always easy to find, so the men would travel to where they were needed while the wives usually stayed home. Lars Olson often found himself away from his home in Normandy (one of the book’s many fictitious towns). Ten-year-old Kaya wondered why her mother would also leave when her father was away. Kaya stayed with Tante Julia and Onkel Otto when her parents were gone. She was happy in Normandy; she had many friends and this was the only home she had known.
In August 1867, Kaya dropped a handful of dirt into her mother’s grave. While throwing the last clumps of dirt onto the coffin Lars had made for Alma, Kaya’s emotions overwhelm her. Blaming herself for her mother’s death, guilt torments her. “If only Mother hadn’t gotten angry with me when I listened in on her conversation. Then she wouldn’t have gone on the stage coach and she wouldn’t have been shot by the bandits.” Sadness speaks to Kaya’s heart.
Kaya’s father tries to give her comfort and assurance. He surprises her with the news that they are moving back to his mother’s home in Preston. Bestemor needs help since Bestefar’s death, and now that Alma is gone someone needs to be able to look after Kaya when Lars is away at his work.
After carefully packing the wagon, Lars asks Kaya to go inside the house to check for forgotten things. Going into her mother’s bedroom, Kaya sees her mother’s large trunk. She had taken it with her when she left the last time, on the stagecoach. After her death the sheriff had returned the trunk. Now Kaya opens it carefully and among other things finds a Dala horse.
Kaya wonders if Dala, her Mother’s actual horse, will be taken with them. Lars assures Kaya that Dala could make the three-day trip better than any of them. When her Mother would leave home she would ride Dala and carry only a travel satchel. Now Kaya wonders why her mother was on the stage the day she was killed instead of riding Dala, and why the large carefully packed trunk. Kaya needs answers. If Lars is right, and her death was not Kaya’s fault, then whose fault was it?
Kaya is surprised and pleased to see that her new home in Preston is not the crude hut in the country she’d expected. The large house is divided so that Bestemor has her half and Lars and Kaya the other half. Although Kaya had been told that her mother was going to see Bestemor because Bestemor was ill, Kaya discovers that her grandmother is actually very healthy. Why hadn’t Alma told Kaya the truth?
Kaya is unhappy when she meets Zach Spence, because he seems to make fun of her by calling her “Norskie.” She is afraid all the other children will make fun of her in the same way. But, as she and Zach become friends, he defends her.
Kaya is kidnapped. She finds herself in a very serious situation with a band of most unpleasant men. She also makes a discovery that later will send her on a mission. She braves serious danger to find the necessary medicine Zach needs when he becomes seriously ill. In doing so she also uncovers many of the secrets and mysteries that have been troubling her.
In this wonderful story, written for young adults, the reader is introduced to Norwegian customs: language, behaviors, expression of feelings, and expectations. The mystery unravels as Kaya finds her new life in Preston to be a disclosure of many things she questioned. The carved Dala horse that Kaya had found in Mother’s trunk becomes a clue.
From the first sentence in this story I found myself drawn into the life of Kaya Olson and her father. The description of life for the Norwegian immigrants and the difficulties they faced as they moved into both new surroundings and new customs came to life in this gripping mystery.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.