Book review: Jacobsen’s Child Wonder

child wonder

Thor A. Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

Only three of Roy Jacobsen’s more than 20 books have been translated into English. That is: The New Water, The Burnt-out Town of Miracles and more recently, Child Wonder. He has been honored with more than 10 literature prizes in Norway and England. Child Wonder, published in Norwegian in 2009 and English in 2011 was honored with the prestigious Norwegian Booksellers Prize. Having read all of Jacobsen’s books in English, and being especially moved by the story of Child Wonder, I hope to see many more of Jacobsen’s books translated to English.

In Child Wonder, Jacobsen tells the story through the eyes of nine-year-old Finn, who lives with his single mom, Gerd, in a modest apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Oslo in the early 1960s. The author grew up in Oslo during this time, and the story in one sense may be partially autobiographical. In the introduction, the author says that “his heroes are kids … and this novel is dedicated to those kids.” Jacobsen is also very cognizant of the struggles of the lower middle class before the great social upward mobility in Norway 10-15 years later.

Finn’s world becomes much more complicated with the addition of his younger step-sister Linda to his household and the arrival of a male boarder who rents one of the rooms in the modest apartment. There are a number of smaller plots, not fully detailed or completed in the story, but the most dominant story is the love and care of Finn for his new ‘sister’, Linda.

Linda is probably about six years old when she joined the household, but she hardly spoke. At first, Finn is a jealous of the new family member and her demands on his mother, but those feelings change as soon as he starts teaching Linda and she responds to Finn’s efforts and care. Gerd, who is very busy trying to make a modest living as a salesperson in a shoe store, has little time for the young girl and is impatient with her progress.

Thanks to their tenant, Finn and Linda spend the warm summer on an island in Oslo Fjord in a tent colony. They are either cared for by Gerd or a young couple who are friends of the mother. Here both children have wonderful experiences and Linda learns how to swim, a major accomplishment for the young girl.

In late August Linda starts school in the first grade. However, she is placed in a “slow” class that the mother had suggested. Finn becomes extremely upset and keeps pushing the school leaders to give Linda a chance in regular classes, because he has already taught her much of what she needed to learn, even if she remains quiet and a little different than the other children. Linda is bullied and that leads Finn to become very physical against the main bully, causing him to be suspended.

There are a number of “issues” with Gerd that are only vaguely detailed in this book, but then, one day the social services come and take Linda from school and place her with “good foster parents.” This is for the best interest of the child, according to the social worker who meets with Gerd and Finn. Finn is devastated and cannot understand why this is happening, and he blames his mother. Finn will constantly reflect on the day and question himself as to why his mother did not fight for Linda. Six months or so later, they receive a letter from Linda, and although she is happy with her foster family, she is very hurt that Gerd did not try to keep her. Well, there were issues with Gerd that Finn did not grasp, including the situation with the male boarder as well as Finn’s temper in protecting Linda from bullies that probably contributed to Linda being placed with a foster family.

Roy Jacobsen’s clever methods of wordsmithing and storytelling ensure that the reader will be almost powerless to put this book down before it is finished!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.