The year is 1886 and Swedish teenager, Ingrid Andersdotter, is about to face a series of life-changing events.
When Ingrid forgets to close the barn door one freezing cold night, there will be dire consequences for her family. To make matters worse, her attraction to the new school teacher leads to ostracism and shame. Ingrid’s strong opinions and the pressure of the powerful village church to conform to ideas she doesn’t believe in put her at odds with her traditional community.
Her only option is to leave her home and family. But is she brave enough to make an ocean crossing to a strange new land on her own, leaving everything she knows far behind? And will she find the freedom she dreams of if she takes such a risk?
I am delighted to welcome Kendra Olson to The Shelf today to talk historical fiction, folklore and new beginnings and to tell us a little more about her debut novel, The Forest King’s Daughter.
Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Kendra! The Forest King’s Daughter is your first novel. Can you tell readers a little about the book and what happens in the story?
Yes, certainly. The Forest King’s Daughter is a coming of age, historical novel with a hint of folklore in it. The story takes place in 19th century rural Sweden and follows the journey of teenager Ingrid Andersdotter as she faces a series of life-changing events. Ingrid battles against the effects of poverty and injustice in her life only to bring about consequences she can’t ignore. It’s how she deals with these consequences that will make all the difference.
The novel begins in Sweden in 1886 before moving to America. Did you always intend to write a historical novel and what drew you to that particular time and those places?
I’m American but moved to England almost fourteen years ago. My novel was inspired by my interest in my great-great-grandmother who, I discovered, emigrated from rural Sweden to America as a young woman back in the late 1800s. She interested me as she’d left Europe never to return and here I was returning over 100 years later, as a young woman. It was a family connection I had forgotten about.
As travel was so much more expensive and dangerous at the time (for steerage passengers anyway) I wondered what might have gone into such a decision. I became interested in Swedish history and started reading about the social conditions of the period. What I learned was that many single young women emigrated to America and that some people were very dissatisfied with the social climate in Sweden. I then started imagining what it might have been like to be a young woman back then—what might your life look like?
This led me to come up with my protagonist, Ingrid Andersdotter, who lives deep in the forest of Värmland (where my grandmother came from). Ingrid is courageous and wilful. She comes up against both her parents and the local church authorities (who functioned like the law at this time). I wondered where her battles might take her and how this would play out. I decided that she’d need to leave her village, but that her journey wouldn’t automatically take her directly to America (that would be too easy!) so she’s first taken to Stockholm where she works as a maid, before getting into trouble again and taking the final step—emigrating to America.
Readers get a real sense of the traditions, expectations and constraints of living in a rural community during the 1880s when reading The Forest King’s Daughter. How did you begin to research the novel? And did any of that research change the story in any way?
Thank you, I’m pleased that you think so. I started by exploring my own genealogy, which was fairly easy as one of my uncles had already done a lot of research, tracing our family all the way back to 17th century Norway. He’d also written up short descriptions of the relatives he knew something about, be that from personal experience, anecdote or family letters. Part of my research involved visiting my existing family in Sweden—the descendants of those who stayed and continue to reside in the same community. This was interesting and a lot of fun. They showed me the house my grandmother grew up in and talked me through what life was like back then. It was an amazing experience!
From there I explored the mythology of Swedish emigrants, reading novels that had been written about them, such as Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and some of Selma Lagerlöf’s stories. This was in addition to reading Swedish history and biographies and visiting museums, such as the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool where I saw replicas of the ships the emigrants travelled to America on.
While writing I tried to completely immerse myself in the story and time, so besides reading about the history and customs of Sweden and Swedish Americans, I tried to replicate what small experiences I could. For example, I visited the old dock in Liverpool where the emigrant ships departed from, which is no longer in use and difficult to find. It was exciting to sit on that old dock and imagine what it must have been like all those years ago. I rode the ferry to get a feeling for being in those waters—they were very choppy! I also learned how to make some traditional Swedish recipes, such as pepparkakor, which are like gingersnaps and baked every Christmas. I even listened to some old Swedish folk music. These experiences certainly fed my imagination while writing the story!
In terms of the research changing the story, I think it functioned more to direct the writing and to help me develop it. After deciding that I wanted to write about this time period, I began reading about it. It was only after I’d done some initial research that I was able to come up with story events, character details etc.
You incorporate some very interesting – and little known (in the UK at least) – folklore into the story. Was this always your intention or did you weave that in as the story progressed? What drew you to tell Ingrid’s story through the lens of a fairy tale?
When hearing stories and reading about the Swedish-American experience, I was struck by how different life was in Sweden in the 19th century. To an emigrant it must have felt almost like another world. Having loved the idea of fairies as a child, it reminded me that fairies inhabit a world just on the edge of our consciousness, in a place where the normal rules don’t apply. In the legends the fairy world sometimes manifests as a fairy circle whereby the person observing it is, quite literally, on the brink of two worlds. It struck me that this is similar to the experience of emigrants who have one foot in the country and culture they grew up in and another in their new country and culture. I thought this could serve as a useful metaphor in the story for Ingrid’s experience.
Then, when I read The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf, a native of Värmland, Sweden, I was struck by her magical depiction of Värmland in winter and the forest people, who were the torpare or crofters—the very same people I’m descended from. As a country’s folklore also reflects something of that culture’s worldview, I thought that incorporating a mythical element might also help me to become better acquainted with my characters and setting.
I should also say that while many of the myths depicted in the story are based on real folklore, the main myth—that of the Forest King’s daughter herself—is actually made up. While the elk are seen as the kings of Sweden’s forest, I have yet to read anything that mythologises them in this way.
The book is very much a coming of age story for young heroine Ingrid. Did you always intend Ingrid to be the focus of the novel? And how did she develop as you were writing her?
I always wanted the story to revolve around a central female protagonist. As I read more about the history of Sweden, particularly women’s history, her character grew from my reading. However, I also wanted her character to be accessible to modern day readers. While there’s a lot of commonality to human experience both past and present, there are elements to her character that I consciously tried to make more modern (her interest in education, for example).
Are there any books that you would recommend to readers who love The Forest King’s Daughter? Any that particularly inspired you or aided in your research?
This is a difficult question to answer as so many different books inspired me and aided me in my research! On the Swedish fiction side, Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson was both inspiring and helpful. Also, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and the stories of Selma Lagerlöf, which I’ve already mentioned. On the non-Swedish fiction side, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which is of course very different but incorporates a mythological element about the narrator’s past as well as Balkan folklore. I also love how Amy Tan weaves myth and magic into her family stories and her novels certainly inspired me. On the non-fiction side, I Go to America, Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson by Joy K. Lintelman helped me a great deal, as did the biographies of immigrant and refugee women more generally.
Do you have any tips for any would be historical novelists out there? The task of writing about a completely different time and place seems very daunting to me – where on earth do you begin?
It’s tricky to give advice as every writer approaches the creative process differently. While I usually start with a vague idea and then do some research to expand upon it, another writer might start writing, and only then begin researching. Also, as historical fiction can contain varying levels of fact, that too will play a part in how a writer approaches their subject. There are as many different ways to write about history as there are to write about contemporary times.
What I would say is that it’s important to do at least some research—the more the better—as readers need to believe in the world you’ve created for your characters. The more known a period/place is, the more likely readers will be to question the story should a detail be incorrect. But don’t go overboard with the detail. Instead, focus on what readers need to know so as not to lose them along the way.
Try to immerse yourself in your chosen setting. This will give you a greater understanding of your characters and help to make them feel credible to readers. Readers want to be able to empathise with a character. This stands whatever your time period. In fact, the more distant the past the story is set in, the more important this is—it’s the reader’s ability to relate to the characters that will help connect them to that particular period of history. Historical fiction is about bringing the past to life, so focus on ways to connect modern day readers to their historical counterparts.
Finally, are you working on anything else now that The Forest King’s Daughter is out in the world? Will this be in a similar vein or are you going for something completely different?
Well, after I wrote The Forest King’s Daughter I wrote another novel, also set in the past, albeit the much less distant past. That story takes place on a Navajo reservation in Arizona in the early 1980s. It contains similarities to The Forest King’s Daughter in that there’s an element of myth to it, but otherwise the story is very different. However that novel isn’t yet published. Much of it was written during my Masters in Creative Writing and it needs more attention and research. Since then I’ve focused on writing literary short stories, both contemporary and historical. I’m hoping to release a collection at some point.
The Forest Kings Daughter is available now. Fans of historical fiction with an added dash of folklore will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who enjoys a coming of age story with a strong-willed female protagonist.
A big thank you to Kendra for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly – it’s been a pleasure to have you visit The Shelf.