The Short Version: The story of the Rovaniemi Family, told via a carousel of narrators, and their devout belief in Laestadianism (an offshoot of Lutheranism). Grappling with the issues of strict belief while also just trying to survive growing up, we see how each family member in particular deals with the issues of religion in the modern world.
The Review: I grew up in a distinctly non-religious household. I remember being the only kid in my 4th grade class who hadn’t been baptized (except for the one Jewish girl, but that still seemed “understandable” because there was still religion involved). So, oddly enough, there’s a part of me that was able to commiserate with the Rovaniemi kids: I know what it’s like to be the confusing figure in an otherwise pretty safe & homogenous group.
The other thing is that I’ve always found religion fascinating, stretching back to the earliest polytheistic societies – that idea that we place our lives, our worlds into faith in something else, whatever that might be. So I find a particular let’s-call-it-anthropologic interest in stories of very religious people. And this book fitfully hits the mark. Laestadianism is, as it turns out, a very real sect of Lutheranism – and it is strict as all get out. No dancing, no music, no TV, very lax understanding of birth control… hence the family of 9 children. But as the 20th Century (where I understand the book to be taking place – I get the sense that it starts in the 70s, maybe) marches forward, it’s harder to keep to such strictures. The introduction of TV into the house starts as something worrisome, something barely tolerated and – as with all technological advances, in religious households or not – becomes eventually a part of the scenery, understood and accepted. Each of the children pushes at the bounds of the religion in one way or another – wanting to go to the high school dance, wanting to drink alcohol – and the question is whether or not they’ll find that the boundaries push back… or if they find themselves through the boundaries and on the outside.
That’s the crux, really, of the story: as these children grow, will they leave or stay with the religion? And for such a relatively simple concept, the book carries a surprising amount of weight. As much as I pushed for the kids to leave (because that’s how I feel about strict religion in general), I also understood each of their decisions for going or staying. It was surprising, how nuanced the thoughts and considerations were and how Pylväinen managed to make each story interesting and different. The format of the book becomes quickly apparent – one chapter = one family member – but the whole thing coheres far better than I would’ve ever expected, especially considering it leaps through over 20-some years of time.
However, she shorts us in the end. The final chapter is jarring to say the least – and gyps us out of one final family member’s story (the second youngest, I believe, never gets her own chapter). Instead, we’re thrown back into the 1800s with the guy who founded the religion and a bunch of people in Finland in the snow and a pregnancy and I suppose the crux of the issue is seeing that these issues – of following/not following the rules of a religion – have tormented the followers since the earliest days of the religion… but it felt unnecessary. It felt completely out of sync with the rest of the book and provided a wholly unsatisfying ending. I didn’t need to know “what happens” to all of the family members – but at the same time, I wanted that one more story I was anticipating. It was akin to the final episodes of a TV show radically altering the conceit of said show – and denying us any proper resolution for the characters we’ve come to know.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a simple-beauty, this book – there’s nothing all that earth shattering about it, nor is there anything radically exciting. Instead, it’s a unique twist on a family story – adding the strict religious background adds a level of inherent tension to an already fraught life experience. You can’t pick your family but you can pick your religion – and when the two get too wound into one another, it gets complex. That alone makes it worth the price of admission. But I felt denied at the end and as a result, I can’t help but feel hollow; the contract I entered into with the book being invalidated because of a technicality or something.