Book review: Two rivers flow in a haunting memoir

Rosalie Grosch
Arden Hills, Minn.

“The river I call my life is about to burst from its banks and take a course through hell.” Mikkel Aaland, the author of his memoir, The River in My Backyard, takes us on a journey down two rivers.

As young boys, Mikkel and his brother, Erik, spend the summer in Ulefoss, Norway. Their father, fearing political upheaval in America, felt the boys would be safer with his family who lived in Norway. Once the boys arrive, Erik and Mikkel are eager to explore the land, which they also discover is the meaning of their last name—Aaland meaning, “Oh Land.” They are cautioned about the river that is deep and cold and runs swiftly through their backyard.

But as the memoir begins, the reader is introduced to the other river in Mikkel’s life, the metaphorical river that runs through the ancestral line of his family. This river he calls his life, “Navigates through rapids and falls, twists and turns, through the waters of madness, patricide and atonement,” and the reader travels every inch of the journey with him.

Mikkel Aaland writes bravely about the tragic event that shatters his family. With courage and clarity, he tells of the mental illness of his youngest brother, Hans; the murder of their father; and his own lengthy personal search to find understanding and healing.

Pictures taken by Aaland, who is a professional photographer, bring to life the vivid and heart-breaking story that seems to pull a family in so many different directions. As Aaland tries to come to grips with the sudden death of his father, he is forced to look backwards, down the two rivers in his life, and in so doing sees his father as a man with many interesting and somewhat bizarre passions and his present life as shattered and broken.

Returning to Norway after he learns that he, as the eldest son, has inherited the Norwegian property, he finds the land cluttered with the French cars his father loved to collect and take apart and the debris that spills out everywhere. Over the many years the family travels to Norway, and during the one year when they live there, the land is cleaned up. The beauty that surrounds him brings some degree of comfort. This, too, is a metaphor, as he lives through the slow restoring of wholeness in his life.

Although Aaland does not speak of any one religion, he does write about a healing through religious practices. His Japanese friend, Kazz Tagami, invites him to make a holy pilgrimage, and in making that pilgrimage he finds cleansing and healing.

Aaland’s memoir is more than just a retelling of events. He digs deeply into the past experiences that continue to haunt and shape his life. From the darkness of the bomb shelter built by a fearful father—the place the author called his room during his growing up years—to the light of understanding, reconciliation, and atonement, the reader is carried down the two rivers until they come together, bringing unity and peace.

The River in My Backyard has been described by other readers as a healing journey of epic proportions, haunting, courageous, brilliant, heart-rending, and moving.

Mikkel Aaland is a photographer, writer, and author of over 15 books. The River in My Backyard is available through bookstores and online. You can reach the author at

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 March 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

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