The Minnesota Trilogy
Brought to you by Jerry Holt
Some years ago, I was privileged to have a conversation with my friend of 50 years, Lance Henson, who is a Cheyenne poet. Lance is always informative, but what impressed me in that conversation was the extent to which Lance had no difficulty in believing that his dead ancestors could walk freely in this world if they wanted to and, in fact, often did. All I could think about was how much my own white culture was missing—and what a wonderful asset this kind of communication would be to any writer of any ethnicity. And that is the experience I had while reading The Minnesota Trilogy, by Vidar Sundstøl. So, I am dedicating this column to Lance, a fine writer and a fine friend.
I would call Vidar Sundstøl’s The Minnesota Trilogy just about perfect mystery fare for readers of this publication: it is without a doubt a Norwegian-American enterprise, and it’s a pretty good one. Besides, where else can you find a crackling good murder mystery, a compelling generational sage, and a family of shape-shifting beavers in one excellent series?
The author, Vidar Sundstøl, is a Norwegian who has lived in the United States: he was born in a village near Telemark and for several years lived on the north shore of Lake Superior, where his Minnesota Trilogy takes place. The series consists of three volumes: The Land of Dreams (2008), Only the Dead (2009), and The Ravens (2011).
For the most part, our point of view is a park ranger named Lance Hansen (not to be confused with the Lance Henson I cited earlier), whose beat is the North Shore of Lake Superior, an area where many Norwegian settlers came to find a new home. Lance is not the most streamlined of protagonists: he is miserably divorced, a single parent, and his weight is fast becoming a problem. He is also very, very conflicted—about his own current family and about his ancestors. But he knows he’s in the middle of something big and scary when he discovers a naked male body at a landmark named Baraga’s Cross, which leads to another man, this one also naked but very much alive—and learns that the two men are Norwegian tourists who knew each other—in fact, they may well have been lovers. As Lance pulls at the string in this deadly ball of yarn, he uncovers mysteries that lead not only to the history of the region he calls home, but also to the dark history of his own family.
All of this intrigue requires considerable setting up, and that is what the first volume, The Land of Dreams, does. The cast is large and includes an abundance of minor characters, but rest assured you will hear from pretty much all of them again before the trilogy ends. But the books come to life not only in their characters, but in their stunningly picturesque locale.
For example, in the second volume, Only the Dead, Lance plays cat and mouse with his own brother, Andy, who by this point has become a suspect in the murder of the Norwegian tourist. This back-and-forth pursuit takes place in the snowy woods around Lake Superior, and here we get to experience one of Sundstøl’s strong suits, which is nature writing. But don’t worry: the author keeps the mystery very much alive, and the sometimes-lengthy description never threatens to swallow up the plot.
How good is Sundstøl’s prose style? Well, it’s this good:
“Spread out before Lance Hansen was one of the most beautiful views in all of Minnesota. With the snow and moonlight, and with the vast expanse of the starry sky displayed above Lake Superior, which was completely white and endless, the view was even more beautiful than usual, bordering on something supernatural, as if it were on a planet that merely resembled ours.”
In my research for this column, I learned that The Minnesota Trilogy had been optioned for a 10-part television series back in 2015, but the project didn’t happen. Three words about that: It needs to. These books are just too filmable not to be on a screen.
The world of the North Shore that Sundstø depicts for us is one in which his characters often seem physically small, dwarfed as they are by the power of the landscape. But this is countered by Sunsdstøl’s characterizations of the several strong Native American characters who tend to straddle that compelling territory between reality and myth. The Ojibwe, particularly Lance’s former father-in-law, Willy Dupree, are major players in this trilogy. They freely accept the existence of the spirit world in their own, and the ghostly presence of a long-dead—or is he?—medicine man named Swamper Caribou may figure directly into the murder that is central to the trilogy.
It is easy to see a strong kinship between Sundstøl and his literary counterpart Louise Erdrich since she toils the same soil. I very much appreciate the seamless transitions Sundstøl makes between current day and a diary from Lance’s own family roots that makes us realize that the past is always with us. In many ways, this is the central theme of the trilogy.
While the North Shore lake and forest account for the most evocative settings in the book, Sundstøl also does wonderfully when we follow Lance into the urban jungle, whether it is the port city of Duluth or the Twin Cities. Since Lance often visits real locations, some of these scenes can be great fun, especially ones in which Lance lunches at the very real Mac’s Café in Minneapolis, home of the famed Juicy Lucy, a particularly gooey double patty cheeseburger. Does Lance order one? You bet he does, his spreading tummy be damned.
As the mystery moves toward its resolve—and believe me, you won’t see it coming—you do feel that you have experienced an author writing at the top of his game. The Land of Dreams won Norway’s coveted Riverton Prize, but frankly it is the final volume, The Ravens, that contains the trilogy’s strongest writing. And that is as it should be, for here the entire story comes full circle—leaving the still troubled Lance Hansen very much unsettled as around him “the myriad twinkling stars and the seemingly endless snow-covered expanse beneath them comprised a world that no one should stare at for long if he wanted to maintain his sanity.”
That’s the kind of writing that another fine stylist, Emily Dickinson, would have called “zero … at the bone.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.