by Jeanne Matthews
In the early ‘80s, my husband and I fell in love with cross-country skiing. We lived in Colorado then and there were lots of tracks to explore. But we dreamed of going to Norway where the word “ski” was invented (from the Old Norse “skid,” meaning a piece of split wood). We drooled over photos of Norway’s rugged, snow-capped mountains and spectacular fjords. But for one reason or another, we never made it.
Thirty years later, as I began to think about a setting for the third book in my Dinah Pelerin international mystery series, the idea of visiting the Land of the Midnight Sun resurfaced. I had become fascinated by the Svalbard “Doomsday” Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Norway and submitted a proposal and the first hundred pages of the manuscript to my publisher. I settled on an itinerary that combined sightseeing with research and bought the tickets. We were to depart on July 23, 2011.
On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik, a blue-eyed Norwegian with a hatred of immigrants and all those who advocate on their behalf, detonated a massive bomb in the heart of Oslo, killing eight and critically injuring ten more. While the police and emergency units rushed to secure the downtown area and tend to the dead and wounded, Breivik boarded a ferry and proceeded to the island of Utoya where a number of children of the immigration-friendly Labor Party were attending a summer camp. Disguised in the uniform of a policeman, he hunted down and shot to death sixty-nine more people, mostly teenagers. It was the deadliest attack by a single gunman in recorded history and the worst violence to hit Norway since World War II.
When we arrived in Oslo two days later, the grief was palpable. Crowds of mourners poured nonstop into the churches. Every public space was blanketed with flowers and candles and miniature Norwegian flags and pictures of the dead. Many of the bouquets and wreaths bore messages of condolence and gratitude from immigrant groups the Norwegians have welcomed into their country. The city looked like a war zone. The concussion from the explosion destroyed the government headquarters and shattered the windows of buildings for blocks around. Workers nailed plywood over the gaping holes and erected chain link fences to seal off the cratered buildings.
We took a bus from Oslo to Bergen and as we passed by Utoya, our driver choked up. When we reached Bergen and checked into our hotel, we found the receptionist in tears. The whole nation seemed to have succumbed to grief. It was heart-wrenching. Sitting in my hotel room and watching that grief unfold on TV, I cried, too. And then I opened my e-mail. “Congratulations,” said a message from my publisher. “Your book will be published next June. You need to finish it fast.”
I don’t write tragedies. My books fall on the lighter side of the crime fiction spectrum. In Bergen, I didn’t see how I could write anything light ever again. At least, not in or about Norway.
I had always wanted to hike to the top of Preikestolen, one of the most jaw-dropping, ya-gotta-see-this-to-believe-it pinnacles in the world and an iconic image of Norway. Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock in English) looks like the prow of a monstrous ship.
On three sides, sheer granite cliffs plunge 2,000 feet to the cobalt waters of the Lysefjord below. There are no fences, no rails, nothing between you and the abyss. Just looking at the photographs made an acrophobe like me feel queasy. But we might never be so close again and the lure of adventure outweighed fear. On August 3, we hopped a ferry to Stavanger and set out to conquer The Big Rock.
The sun was shining for the first time in a week and there were hundreds of people on the trail, all of them climbing faster than us. After an hour of scrambling over boulders the size of SUVs, we stopped to catch our breath beside a small lake and struck up a conversation with a Norwegian family from Oslo. They expressed sadness over the massacre, but spoke with pride about Norway’s history of tolerance and equality for all. They and all Norwegians place great value on their open and inclusive way of life and they refuse to be intimidated by the hateful acts of a bigot.
The confidence and resilience of those people, not to mention the way they vaulted over chest-high boulders and leapt from precarious ledge to ledge, reminded me that Norwegians are descended from the Vikings, some of the bravest, toughest people who ever walked the planet. They will endure and, as their national motto says, remain “united until the mountains crumble.” I decided I could finish my book and even end it on a triumphant note. We scored the view from the top. And I modeled the Sami policeman who helps Dinah solve the mystery on a Norwegian Good Samaritan who helped my husband make the descent down the mountain after he fell and broke his arm.
Jeanne’s latest Poisoned Pen Press novel is Bonereapers. Visit her website for more information.