Book Review: The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

The Bell in the Lake

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The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting focuses on a 700-year-old stave church.

Washington D.C.

Lars Mytting is best known for his very popular non-fiction book, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. He is also, however, a very talented novelist. His latest book is a remarkable story set in the fictional village of Butangen in Gudbrandsdalen in late 19th century Norway, where the inhabitants lead lives of severe hardship.

The Bell in the Lake has a thematic connection with Norwegian Wood. The primary focus of the novel is on the village’s 700-year-old stave church. More than 1,000 of these masterpieces of wooden architecture were built in Norway between 1150 and 1350. Archeologists estimate that there were as many as 2,000 or more before the Reformation in 1537. At the time of this story, however, many of these churches were being dismantled (or demolished) to make way for more modern, comfortable churches. This was the case in Butangen in 1880.

A new pastor, Kai Schweigaard, had just arrived, and he was eager to carry out his special plan. He had recently succeeded in making a very advantageous agreement with a professor of art history at the Dresden Academy of Art. Professor Ulbricht had made an offer to buy the church and transport it to Germany. This offer could not be refused. It would provide enough money to build a new church in its stead where his parishioners would feel comfortable, especially in the bitter cold of winter.

Gerhard Schönauer, an especially talented student of architecture at the Dresden Academy, was sent to Butangen to make sketches of the church as it was dismantled so that it could be reconstructed when it arrived in Germany. 

The reaction of the villagers was rather muted. They were focused on how to survive, how to live from day to day. These were desperate times. But one inhabitant in particular was upset by the plan, especially when she heard that the two church bells were part of the deal and would be taken away. Astrid Hekne, a young girl of 20, had a strong connection to these bells. It was her ancestor Eirik Hekne who had commissioned them in memory of his two daughters, Gunhild and Halfrid. Known as the Sister Bells, they were believed to have the magical power of tolling at times of danger.

Astrid was exceptional for a woman at the time and had been unusual since her childhood. She was intensely curious and wanted to learn as much about the world as possible. She felt stifled by the ignorance in her community. She immediately felt attracted to both the pastor and the student because of their superior learning and their knowledge of life beyond Butangen. She began to daydream. What would her life be like if she shared it with one of them? And which one? Not surprisingly, both the pastor and the student set their sights on her. Schweigaard thought she would make a perfect companion for him and a very good pastor’s wife. Schönauer appreciated her eagerness to learn and her interest in life in Dresden and he longed to take her there as his wife.

Drama builds in the novel as the old stave church is painstakingly dismantled and the three characters strive to realize their personal dreams of a happy future. The author keeps readers deeply engrossed through many twists and turns until the very end. In addition to an exciting story, he also provides a real feel for the lives of rural Norwegians at that historical time in a very poor and superstitious Norway. Even as late as the end of the 19th century, the beliefs of these people reflected the attributes of the stave churches, part pagan and part Christian.

This book is the first in a trilogy, and readers will be hard pressed to wait to read the second one. The author left some tantalizing loose ends!

The Bell in the Lake, Lars Mytting (2020). New York: Overlook Press. Translated from the Norwegian Søsterklokkene by Deborah Dawkin.

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.