Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Occasionally, in some popular Scandinavian television series, the  Nordic indigenous minority, the Sami, appear.  Stolen is a gripping account of life in the tundra of northern Sweden, where a group of Sami live in a small village. Reindeer are an integral part of their lives; their knowledge of the herds’ ways, their care for them in the harsh winters and often the deep attachments they form with these wild animals, form a major part of this unforgettable novel.

The author herself is Sami and of Tornedalian descent, so her book has a deep vein of authenticity and illuminates an aspect of life in our rapidly changing world that gets rare attention.

Elsa, nine years old, is the main character and a mirror of life for the Sami in remote Swedish villages. At this early stage, she is already devoted to the reindeer and is competent in her knowledge and skills. Her life unfolds as the reader follows her progress through school, then becoming a teacher; but it is her passionate love of the reindeer that dominates each phase.   Her parents and brother, Matthias, live simply and she is close to her neighbour and her daughter, Anna-Stina.

Stolen gives a vivid picture of the tough endurance of the people who can withstand temperatures below -20deg, and of the customs and outlook which have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Although in the 21st century, there are snowmobiles and the mobile phone!

Elsa’s outlook is altered when her reindeer, raised from a vulnerable calf, is savagely killed by a local Swede. He, like many who are not Sami, despise the indigenous people and view them with contempt. They regard the reindeer as poaching targets, a means to make money.

The conflict begins to mount and the tension slowly grows in subsequent years until the climax at the end brings a final twist. Robert, the key ‘villain’ of the novel is cruel and brutal. Some scenes graphically describe actions that only a cruelly disturbed person could commit on an animal. His childhood however was far from happy.

All this changes Elsa. She is no longer the happy child, trusting, joining in to care for the herd through the changing year. She becomes angry, disgusted by the failure of the police to act, obsessed by the plight of the reindeer, isolated in many ways from her community. She is unable to enjoy the annual festival, lively and colourful, and soon  becomes a target of ugly messages on her phone. The adult Elsa is almost unrecognisable now. Her life is marked by a fiery determination to safeguard the precious animals in her care and convince the community that the reindeer are targets of the ruthless Robert.

Finally, justice of a kind emerges, but in an unsettling manner.

There is so much that makes Stolen an outstanding book. For me, the details of reindeer behaviour and the Sami’s close relationship them is fascinating. Linked to this is the culture of this special group…..which abhors the term ‘Lap’, to them an insult.

Descriptions of the seasons and changing landscape are starkly beautiful, another remarkable feature.

I did find the time frame sometimes confusing as chunks of Elsa’s life skip from detailed childhood to relatively brief college and working life. Then, suddenly she is driving!

Ann-Helén’s book is a best seller in Sweden and sold to 22 countries. Currently her book is being made into a film by Netflix and should appear next year.

Meanwhile, the clear, precise and carefully written prose is a delight to read and beautifully creates a world and way of life that is fast disappearing, although this is not a lecture on climate change. It is, rather, a subtle yet powerful  reminder…



by Ann-Helén Laestadius


ISBN 978 152665 997 2

$32.99; 382pp

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