Deeper into The Land of Dreams

Sundstøl’s Only the Dead resolves some of the first book’s mysteries—but not all

book cover for Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

In The Land of Dreams, the first book of his Minnesota Trilogy, Vidar Sundstøl introduces his protagonist, Lance Hansen. Hansen, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants and amateur local historian, is a U.S. Forest Service officer. He leads a rather calm, routine life on Lake Superior’s North Shore—until, that is, he finds the body of a murdered Norwegian tourist.

Hansen is shocked and thinks it may be the first murder ever committed in Cook County. Then he remembers that a medicine man called Swamper Caribou disappeared one hundred years ago. Perhaps Swamper was murdered. And perhaps he was murdered by one of Hansen’s own ancestors, Thormod Olson. Hansen unofficially begins to investigate this very cold case. At the same time he unofficially follows the recent case that has been taken over by the FBI since the murder occurred on federal land. At a certain point he begins to suspect that the murderer of the Norwegian tourist is none other than his own brother Andy.

The reader is left exasperatingly up in the air at the end of this first novel. Two questions linger: Was Andy the murderer of the Norwegian tourist? Was Swamper murdered? Are these questions answered in the second book of the trilogy?

Only The Dead moves dramatically back and forth between these two themes, between the present and the past. Lance and his brother Andy meet up for their annual deer hunt. The situation is tense. Lance is certain that his brother killed the Norwegian, and he believes that his brother knows that he knows. He is, therefore, very nervous about wandering around alone in the thick forests with his armed brother. To what lengths would his brother go to keep him silent?

Interspersed with the frightening account of the two brothers stalking deer (and each other) are words from the past. Thormod begins to speak. He describes his desperate attempt to battle the hostile elements to reach his uncle’s cabin. As he tries to cross a frozen river, the ice cracks and he falls in. Miraculously, the Indian Swamper appears and pulls him out. What happens next?

The two narrative threads are skillfully interwoven throughout Only the Dead. The suspense in both is overwhelming. But the most extraordinary aspects of this second book are the incredibly rich descriptions of the wild topography of Minnesota’s North Shore—the land, the trees, the water—and the meticulous rendering of the threatening weather, in particular an ice storm. While both Thurmond and Lance become victims of nature and are on the verge of certain death, one of them struggles mightily to survive but the other begins to give up and succumb to hostile Mother Nature.

The book ends with the resolution of one mystery only. The resolution of the other will hopefully come in the third and final book of the trilogy.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emeritus 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, DC. She is interested in all things Norwegian.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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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.

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