I knew nothing about Stolen, its plot, and its inspiration before I asked to review it for Farrago - I chose it for its title and the author’s name (Ann-Helén Laestadius), both of which intrigued me. Regardless, I am certainly happy that I made a choice to read it because Stolen is a multilayered novel tackling indigenous rights, expectations of gender, motherhood, family, and the struggle between one’s duty to preserve their culture and their desire to live life as one pleases.
It follows the coming-of-age of Elsa, a Sami girl, from the age of nine to young adulthood. The Sami - the only Indigenous group recognised by the European Union–are the indigenous peoples of Sápmi, which encompasses northern Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Laestadius, who is of Sami descent herself, draws an honest portrait of the discrimination, hatred, and violence against her people. After witnessing a man butcher her reindeer, Nástegallu, as a child, Elsa is burdened with a secret and a life-long inescapable sense of fear.
It cannot be said that Stolen paints Elsa’s life with “searing” realism because the reader will not feel confronted by the novel - Laestadius is not trying to pressure you; she is inviting you to listen. Elsa’s childhood trauma underpins her life and growth, of which she is constantly reminded as reindeer are targeted by racial attacks against the Sami and their way of life. And Laestadius includes scenes of cultural pride, family, and everyday life in Elsa’s story - when reading or listening about the struggles of an oppressed group, it is easy to see them as happening to “someone else”, but Laestadius grounds us in Elsa’s reality. This makes it difficult to detach ourselves from the suffering of her people.
It is a rare talent to be able to articulate and express in such an engaging manner the complexities and intersectionalities that come with being a woman of a historically rich and oppressed indigenous community. I connected with Elsa’s navigation through her culture on a personal level. It is heavy to inherit the good, the bad, and the ugly from one’s ethnic community; Elsa is proud of her Sami heritage and line of reindeer herders, but she wrestles with patriarchal limitations and anxieties over how to preserve her own culture that is threatened by climate change, violent racism, and the reluctance of the younger generations to embrace their roots.
After closing the book, I found that I missed the story and Laestadius’ voice–take this as a testament to the vividness of Stolen, which needed no flourish or exaggeration to succeed as a novel, only truth.