Book review: “Odin’s Promise” fulfilled in YA novel


Rosalie Grosch
Arden Hills, Minn.

Eleven year old Mari, with her trusted Norwegian elkhound companion, Odin, takes us on a powerful journey into the land she loves, her beloved Norway and her small area of Ytre Arna. From the first line, this historical novel, written by Sandy Brehl for the middle-grade reader, promises to engage adult readers as well. The author has drawn on her own travels and experiences to create the setting and the characters.

1940: World War II and the first year of German occupation in Norway is a time of confusion, fear, and submission for the Norwegians. Mari, her family, and many of her neighbors are drawn into the secretive activities of the Norwegian underground resistance. Often the children carry notes to others in the resistance. As children they are less likely to be questioned by the soldiers or by the locals who have bent under Nazi oppression.

Mari, innocently picking berries in the woods to take home as a gift for her father’s birthday, is confronted by two frightening, foot-stomping German soldiers, The Rat and The Scarecrow. Odin, Mari’s constant companion, placed in her arms as a puppy on her eighth birthday, has always followed her everywhere. Now, three years later, he would do whatever she wished. But his Norwegian elkhound instincts take over when he sees the German soldiers. Her trusty dog stands his ground, neither budging nor listening to her commands. With his lips curled back and a snarl deep in his throat he alerts Mari to the danger before them.

Mari watches as her good friend, Mr. Meier, staggers and falls, shoved by the Nazi soldier known as “The Rat.” When asked by the soldiers if she knew him, Mari stammers and then glances at Mr. Meier. He turns away from her while slightly shaking his head. She stumbles with her words, saying nothing that would incriminate him. Mari’s loyalty becomes clear to the reader with such a moment.

Later, the same two soldiers encounter Mari, this time threatening to kill Odin. She, as a brave eleven year old, stands up to their boastful threats, confidently saying, “Since when do we not belong in our own village streets? Or on our own mountain tops for that matter.” Soon the village learns of Mari’s courage. Proud of Mari and wishing to acknowledge her bravery, the villagers dare not speak about this in case the Germans hear them.

Although this is a novel, the reader is drawn into the Norwegian culture with its traditions, foods, relationships, village ways, loyalties, and the undeserving hardships the Norwegians endured during this difficult time.

As Mari’s older sister, Lise, prepares for her wedding, her family and the neighbors quietly go about bartering, trading, and gathering everything that is needed for a truly Norwegian celebratory wedding. Bunads, (the national dress) are brought out and cleaned. Traditional foods are prepared. The wedding, to be held on Constitution Day, must not be announced publicly for the Germans have declared a New Norwegian Constitution. No recognition of King Haakon’s Norway could be acknowledged. When surprise guests arrive at the wedding Mari sees a compassionate side in one of the German soldiers as he turns to thank her for a reminder of his home.

The villagers remember and talk about the strength of Odin. They remind Mari that his faithfulness, courage, and boldness have inspired others to continue to be brave during the difficult times ahead.

Author Sandy Brehl, teacher and writer, has created a brilliant portrayal of a young girl’s courage in the face of ongoing danger and struggle. Mari grows up in many ways. In this beautifully written story about Norway’s struggle during the beginnings of WWII we get a great visual of life for the Norwegians living in the countryside as well as the city. One does not feel like a witness to life in Norway but a participant with Mari, her family, and her friends. The struggle that Norway faced during the WWII years comes alive for all readers.

At Lise’s wedding everyone quietly sings the Norwegian national anthem, a song no longer heard in pubic, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet.” “Unlike the rousing renditions typical of past Syttende Mai fests, but more like a choir singing a soft lullaby,” they sing of their love for the land and their hope for freedom.

Rosalie Grangaard Grosch was born into a Norwegian/American family in Decorah, Iowa. A graduate of Luther College, she taught music and English in American schools, taught English and developed a team teaching program at Trinity School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a drama/music/English teacher at Balob Teachers’ College, Lae, Papua New Guinea and Activity Director/Consultant for a long term care facility in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN. She is a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul and has written numerous articles for publication.

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2015, 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.