Cold Fever

December 10, 2021   •   By John Erik Riley

Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra

Laura Galloway

FROZEN LANDS are places of grave danger and terrible insights, or so it seems if we use books, movies, and television as a gauge.

Chris McCandless dreams of Alaska in Into the Wild, and Joel Fleischman recreates himself in Northern Exposure. Gandalf reappears as Gandalf the White on a mountaintop in The Lord of the Rings, and it is to Iceland that Hirata travels to pay his respects seven years after his parents’ death in the undersung film Cold Fever. Even when the reason for the journey is pragmatic — the performance of a simple Japanese ritual of remembrance — the cold country is portrayed as a land of legends, dreams, and transitions. Cold draws us in, and the exile cleanses us. Only when Dante and Virgil cross the coldest part of Hell do they advance through Purgatory to Paradise.

In the case of the memoir Dálvi by Los Angeles writer Laura Galloway, the northward turn is initially scientific, even prosaic, in nature, and she seems far removed from myth. She takes a DNA test, which places her ancestry firmly in the north — or so she is led to believe — with strong roots among the Sámi, the Indigenous peoples who reside in and around the Nordic countries. Their cross-border existence, which was established long before Europeans colonized and partitioned the land and erected fences, is like a mirror image of her fluid life story, especially after she meets a Sámi reindeer herder at a wedding and falls in love.

Most of us long to find our true origin, and many of us wish to start anew. Galloway hopes to achieve both by moving to Kautokeino in Northern Norway, near the borders with Sweden and Finland. Her Sámi partner eventually rejects her, but the heartbreak is not enough to make her retreat. Instead, Kautokeino will remain her home for years. This leads to a large amount of soul-searching, some of it intriguing to the reader, some of it less so, as well as serial reflections on local culture and history. Galloway is often the outsider and analyzes the world with a sociological gaze. But while her love for the people is apparent — be they gruff shopkeepers or helpful transients — this is primarily Galloway’s tale, not her neighbors’.

Parts of Dálvi are remarkable, and I am grateful for having read them. Although Galloway grows up middle class and is fortunate enough to have a father who expresses unwavering love, her life is one of repeated trauma. Behind the family facade lies a doll’s house of day-to-day abuse, reminiscent of all things Scandinavian, from Bergman to Knausgaard. We are presented with a mother who dies when the author is very young, an abusive stepmother, and any number of tremors that emanate from the fault line that runs between these two tales. In a vicious manner, the new matriarch rejects the family’s idealized memories of the past. She views anything connected to prior family life as a threat, so much so that Galloway’s siblings are either booted out or decide to flee.

Part of what makes Dálvi such an intriguing read are the many turns of the screws in Galloway’s upbringing. I am loath to reveal more than I already have and choose instead to state one of the text’s central facts: in the face of adversity, one can either wither or thrive, implode or press on. Galloway seems to find herself among the latter type, and the reader can’t help but be impressed by her drive, which eventually leads her to a top job building and marketing an international brand. (She does not name names, perhaps for legal reasons, but we know that she is referring to TED Talks.)

She is also assisted along the journey from youth to adulthood by a series of helpers, who pop into her life to sweep her along or offer her a place to regroup. But when she loses her main gig and her own relationship tanks, she reaches a watershed.

The doorbell rings one day. When she answers it, a man presents her with a bouquet of roses and a legal-looking envelope and exclaims, “You’re served.” Her husband of many years has decided to break it off and wants to inflict as much harm as possible before he departs — hence the messenger. She is clearly shocked by this. Although time will pass before she finally moves north, the event is a premonition. An exit is imminent.

But what is the North in this particular context, in Dálvi? It is most certainly the opposite of her previous life, and the narrative develops accordingly, back and forth between the opposing poles. The United States is a busy place of upper-middle-class problems and wealth, whereas Kautokeino represents a simpler but also more intricate existence, driven by rules that can challenge any newcomer, no matter how open-minded they are at the outset. Galloway does a fine job of showing how different this specific region is from other parts of Scandinavia, and by that I am not referring to obvious things like the reindeer-herding industry or the massive contrast between the sunless winters and summer’s white nights. The differences can be far more subtle.

Even well-educated Norwegians will often claim that the country became multicultural when immigration began to increase in the 1960s and 1970s, but this is simply not true and remains an unfortunate ignorance. To the unfocused eye, the Far North and East are all mountains and tundra and fjord. A four-hour drive from Kirkenes to Karasjok will, however, transport you through a series of languages, cultures, and religions. There is a Sea Sámi museum near Nyelv, an orthodox chapel in Neiden, and a Finnish flag waving above Bugøynes. All of this is the result of centuries-long movement across borders — among people who often lived nomadically across the entire Northern Cap until the various kingdoms staked their claims and colonization was complete.

The King Oscar II Chapel near the Russian border is typical of the region’s complicated politics. In the 1800s, it was built in an elevated position, visible from afar, so that there would be no doubt about where the border had been drawn — Russia ends there, it says; Norway begins here. An unfortunate aspect of this parceling of the North was an insistence on cultural hegemony. The “Norwegianization” policies that Galloway writes about are still evident, despite a number of institutional changes since the 1980s. For some, being ethnically Sámi is a source of pride, but for others, it is still something you speak of in hushed tones or deny outright. I have attended events where both of these tendencies are at play, in ways that can be difficult for a guest to navigate.

Although Galloway’s memoir reads like a good 101 course for understanding Kautokeino and Finnmark in general, the lack of a deeper interest in history is problematic. One oversight is how much the area remains marked by World War II, the effects of which I imagine were discussed to a greater degree during her stay than the narrative suggests. The retreating Nazi forces enacted a scorched earth policy, destroying entire towns in their wake. What saved many people as winter fell — among them, the Sámi — was specific knowledge about the landscape: where to hide, how to obtain and store food, and so on. (In Galloway’s defense, even native Norwegians, especially in the South, are strangely oblivious to the extent of wartime suffering in the Far North.)

Still, Galloway’s anecdotes about trying to fit in, both amusing and self-deprecating, can be strangely moving. Dálvi gains quite a bit from Galloway’s self-imposed role as a stranger in a strange land, and the North is ripe with opportunities for misunderstandings and mishaps — especially when the cast of characters can be hard for her to interpret. This is not only true of the clash between her American experiences and habits and the local culture: like the American desert, Northern Norway is a place full of temporary visitors, people who have fled from one thing or another. And although Galloway counts herself among them, like most transients, her contemporaries seem wary of long-term connections, often leaving her at the very moment she believes she has found a new friend.

Her relationships with the more permanent population are also confounding, as in this amusing passage, which, in a glimpse, speaks volumes about Galloway’s time with her partner Áilu:

A couple of times I see our next-door neighbours on the ground floor, because we share a small entryway. Each time the woman sees me, she looks at me suspiciously and doesn’t say hello. […] If we happen to be leaving, she often asks Áilu for a ride, and he always says no, curtly explaining that it’s “better not to get involved, or I will be driving all the time.” I see a man go into the apartment occasionally, or walking outside, eyes glazed over in a drunken stupor.

Welcome to Scandinavia. Please leave Midwestern nice at the door.

Galloway, an urbane and sensitive pet-lover, struggles to fit in with a culture where most needs are utilitarian in nature and animals have to earn their place, sometimes removed from the equation when their contributions are lacking. She laments the way neighborhood dogs are treated as simple tools for survival but is wise enough to include touches of irony as she is gradually made aware of her own blind spots. The cultural codes are hard for her to decipher, and every time Galloway starts to feel at home, a new challenge arises. Anyone who has visited Norway knows that the easiest escape from pragmatism is a quick vacation with the bottle, and Kautokeino is no different.

But there are dangers in partying as well. After Galloway has some men over for an evening of binge-drinking, a neighbor cautions her about her reputation: the tundra is not exempt from the unwritten rules that constrain women. You must adhere to the “Law of Jante,” a term from an Aksel Sandemose novel, and preferably conform without further instruction. Any Norwegian will nod knowingly at this reference in Dálvi.

As a long-term resident of Norway, I am sometimes confused by Galloway’s generalizations, however. Which experiences are rooted in Sámi culture in this memoir, and which are likely expressions of a broader Norwegian or Nordic culture? The shaman her boyfriend calls to find a lost skeleton key is certainly an example of the former rather than the latter. But when someone Galloway meets at a party speaks of eating “night meat,” I can’t help but think that he must have used the Norwegian word nattmat, a nighttime meal served at the tail end of a party. My guess is that this was a play on words, as Norwegians are painfully fond of bilingual puns that will make an English speaker wince. (A part of me dies every time a Norwegian inexplicably replaces the phrase vi snakkes — which means “we’ll speak soon” — with we snakes.)

I am similarly curious about Galloway’s experiences with Norwegian bureaucracy, which is not always kind to resident aliens. She must have had a student visa while she was studying Indigenous journalism in Kautokeino. But what was her immigration status otherwise, and how she was able to remain in the area for so long? Although descriptions of paperwork and office meetings don’t necessarily make for engaging reading, this aspect of her time in the Nordic region certainly must have led to frustration. In the text, it might also have emphasized her sense of never quite belonging, of trying but failing to fit in. For isn’t this the central theme of the latter third of Dálvi? Galloway realizes that there are certain experiences she cannot leave behind, and we see a gradual cleansing of the mind and growing clarity; the paradox of the long-term guest is apparent.

We are witnessing the dual vision of a person in exile. Galloway feels more at home than ever but also seems to observe her life from a distance. The American in her has been reawakened. Despite strong friendships, she cannot remain in Sápmi forever.

This turn is accompanied by some lovely depictions of the land and climate. Although Galloway is not a nature writer in the ecosophical tradition, her tone is one of enthusiasm, which is at times wide-eyed, even childlike, as she hikes across the tundra and gathers wood or picks berries. Her role as an outsider, be it real or imagined, is something she shares with other people in the village, and this infuses her nature writing — and also allows for perspectives about a certain type of person, of which there are many in Kautokeino. The transients come to the forefront once again.

In Dálvi, nature and culture are united, and together they provide a map to a certain mental landscape: cold, isolated, but also full of moments of wonder, which are shared among the area’s aforementioned drifters, all who remain in Finnmark for the short or the long haul. At their best, Galloway’s observations are, in equal turns, anthropological and personal, analytical and lyrical:

I recognize that we are united by our otherness and something else: we stay to face ourselves, to prove that we are strong, that we can survive through entirely dark winters of minus-forty-degrees temperatures that freeze your breath to ice but also make you remember that you have breath in you at all. And we stay because of a wild and untouched nature that overpowers and stuns and can make you cry: low white clouds gliding over teapot-blue skies, almost brushing the earth on a curve that you can follow with your hand; auroras that undulate and dance in electric greens and pinks and blues against a vanta black [sic] sky, never the same, never predictable, a gift that arrives unexpectedly in moments as mundane as taking out the garbage cans on a Monday night, the loamy tundra under your feet. This place makes a home for a particular kind of person, and for this reason, we are all kindred spirits in a way. We are alone together.

It is telling, at this point in the narrative, that she identifies more and more with the villagers who are only partially Sámi — or not even Sámi at all. The reader again senses a shift, perhaps a need for new connections, despite her romantic leanings. Or perhaps she has simply had enough. The change leads to new insights, and she is embarrassed by her former naïveté, troubled by the contrast between Laura then and Laura now. She reevaluates her DNA test, and the results are not as clear as they were last she checked: she is likely not Sámi at all. She begins to feel like an imposter and reevaluates the meaning of her stay:

I think about a magazine article I’d written earlier based on my time in the Arctic, which reflected what I understood and believed to be true at the time. What now makes me cringe is the last sentence of the article: “I am Sámi.” Because I am not Sámi; I am also not English or Irish or French or any of the other things the test thinks […] I am a Midwesterner from Indiana who can tell anything you want to know about thunderstorms and corn and late-night-television host David Letterman.

Galloway doesn’t use the term cultural appropriation, but her sense of shame is palpable.

What happens next, when the new life is no longer new but instead feels false, unethical even? Will we see a synthesis of past horrors and recent joys in a future life abroad?

Yes and no. As a fellow human being, I am glad to see Galloway find a way forward, in a happy ending that I won’t reveal. But as a reader, my interest dwindles somewhat, not from irritation or doubt — on the contrary, I find her story believable — but because the move toward harmony is fraught with narrative challenges. When faced with beautiful landscapes, as in Galloway’s Finnmark, peace and silence are invigorating, but in books and movies we are more easily captivated by conflict. Let the author be comforted that a great classic, The Divine Comedy, shares a similar structure.

What remains indelible, in any case, is the trauma in Galloway’s past and her struggle to recreate herself in the aftermath, as she spirals up the purgatorial mountain toward a paradise that is neither American nor Nordic, but perhaps some enigmatic mix of the two.

¤

John Erik Riley is a Norwegian and American writer, publisher, and photographer, currently based in Oslo. He is the managing editor for Norwegian fiction at Cappelen Damm in Norway and has contributed to McSweeney’s and Lit Hub.