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A sisterhood of necessity

Members of the Lotta Svärd organization, Finland’s equivalent of the Swedish lottor, prepare food for Finnish volunteers on a clearance camp shortly before the Continuation War (1941). Credit: Uusi Suomi.

As part of our celebration of Women in Translation Month, Sarah Death introduces an extract from The Angel House, the third part of Norvik’s recently republished Katrineholm series. 

Kerstin Ekman’s central project in this quartet of novels was to depict the lives of women in a world run by men, the ‘town within the town’. The four books have become known collectively as Kvinnorna och staden, generally translated as ‘Women and the City’, and are a portrait of the town of Katrineholm in periods both before and after it gained its official city status in 1917.  It is barely more than a collection of fields and hamlets as the first novel opens and as the series unfolds we see it develop into a bustling town and thriving railway hub.

Women are not only the beating heart of Kerstin Ekman’s quartet, they are also the community’s backbone, a vital component of its workforce. We often see them labouring away on their own, as in our extract about Ingeborg Ek (see Linda Schenck’s recent post: ‘Round and round we go’). That dust keeps collecting on the furniture, those berries keep ripening and are crying out to be preserved for the winter, those nappies need an urgent wash. Individual women even labour in the night, be it nursing a new baby, setting dough and baking bread, making sweets to sell at your market stall, or hemming a frock to meet a dressmaking deadline.   Sometimes they are worn out, numb, at the end of their tether, sometimes desperately lonely, and sometimes they are relieved to be left in peace.

But there are also many scenes in the books of women working together, living in what we might call a sisterhood of necessity. This can be at an everyday level, sharing the privies and backyards, looking after the children, watering the communal gardens, feeding the cats, keeping an eye on each other’s washing and slipping through the hedge or across the stairwell to borrow a cup of sugar.  It can be at the level of individual friendships, many of which we see flourishing, like the one between Ingrid and Maud who enjoy their nights out dancing even though there is a war on. It can be in small clusters, like the group of elderly ladies, Tora, Ebba and a few other good friends who come together for a weekly whist evening and a comforting chat over beer, coffee and sandwiches as they try to come to terms with old age.

And it can be on a larger scale, the most notable example being the lottor, the Women’s Defence Volunteers, roped in from diverse walks of life to perform the heroic feat of feeding and watering the troops whose trains pull up at the station platform at any time of day or night. Dog-tired, possibly after a day’s work in their regular jobs, they drag themselves through their shifts and – rather to their own surprise – forge a precarious kind of solidarity that becomes increasingly precious to them, a bulwark against war, loneliness and all the other trials of life.

Click on the book cover below to read the extract.

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Round and round we go…

Delicious drottningsylt. Credit: Ove Lindfors.

As part of our celebration of Women in Translation Month, Linda Schenck introduces an extract from The Spring, the second part of Norvik’s recently republished Katrineholm series. 

The years have their cycles, and we our rituals. Never have they become more distinct than during the course of the ongoing 2020–21 pandemic. Kerstin Ekman’s writing also has its cycles, and with Norvik Press having republished the Women and the City tetralogy they, too, have become increasingly distinct. The echoes of previous books in the later ones, the return of places, names and rituals. So I find myself writing this little introduction to a section smack in the middle of The Spring, book two of Women and the City, at the same time as I am reading and rereading her forthcoming novel, Löpa varg (roughly ‘Wolf Run’), set for publication in September 2021. I hope this brief text may serve both as a look back, and a bit of a forward teaser, no spoilers.

The extract below features Ingeborg Ek, foster mother to Ingrid. Ingrid comes from a household where there is just barely enough money to pay the rent and put porridge on the table (often for breakfast and dinner), so we partly imagine her moving into the home of ‘one of the most industrious, most thorough people on earth’ who ‘never made a hollandaise sauce with fewer than ten yolks’ and whose life is regimented by seasons, rituals and their demands (with no mention of their pleasures), and partly see her through the narrator’s eyes. Ingeborg ‘regularly wore herself out at Christmas time’, baked the seasonal cakes for every holiday, spent the summer making jams and jellies, and before she knew it the next Christmas was over, leaving ‘candle wax on the runners, pine needles on the carpet, cigar ash on the sofa and rings on the tabletop from glasses’.

In Ekman’s 2021 novel, the female protagonist, Inga, lives in rural Hälsingland and makes an orange marmalade that takes three days, prompting her husband to comment: ‘You can only find the kind of time you need to make marmalade like that up here.’ But she does her chores out of love, and even recruits her husband, a thought that would never have occurred to Ingeborg Ek. He tells the reader: ‘In the spring light everything was suddenly visible: greasy fingerprints on cupboard doors, limescale stains in the bathroom, cobwebs by the ceiling cornices. Inga swished through the whole house at a mad pace but quite cheerfully, armed with cleaning agents, mops, rags and scrubby sponges. She assigned me to deal with the bookcases.’

Hence, what goes around comes around, in the calendar, in Ekman’s texts, and in our lives. I’m heading out into the woods now. If there are ripe blueberries, I will be able to make raspberry and blueberry jam tonight, the kind the Swedes call the queen of jams, drottningsylt.