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When the Snow Fell

Review

When the Snow Fell

Joel Gustafson, the protagonist of two previous novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell (A BRIDGE TO THE STARS and SHADOWS IN THE TWILIGHT), is growing up. He’s 14 now, and starting to realize that there are both good and bad things that come with getting older. As the book opens, he’s about to make his New Year’s resolutions --- very solemnly in a churchyard at midnight --- and his resolutions (like most) are pretty telling. For one thing, he wants to make himself strong enough to live until he’s 100, a feat he intends to accomplish in part by toughening himself up by sleeping outdoors even in the brutal winter nights in northern Sweden. He also plans to help make enough money so that he and his dad, a former sailor longing to return to the crisp blue waves, can move closer to the ocean. And, most importantly, he resolves to see a real-live naked woman.

Joel’s perplexities about girls and women --- he likes to watch them from a distance but is tongue-tied and shy in real life --- are representative of his ever-increasing awkwardness and uncertainty about growing up. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his shifting relationship with his friend Gertrud, a young woman who lost her nose after a surgical mistake. Gertrud is mocked and ostracized by others in their small town, but Joel has always been kind to her --- until he lashes out at her in a rage that even he doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, he’s growing increasingly fascinated by the young new salesclerk at the local market, whom he is sure will become the naked woman of his imaginations and resolutions.

Meanwhile, Joel is learning that growing up also means new, unwelcome responsibilities at home. His father, Samuel, has just been dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Sara, and he has returned to the heavy drinking and self-destructive behavior that characterized his life before she came along. Now, though, Joel feels a compulsion both to help his father and avoid the embarrassment that accompanies his public intoxication.

While this sense of responsibility is heightening as he grows up, his endearing imagination and fancifulness, as well as his sensitivity, remain. “To grow up is to wonder about things,” Joel thinks to himself, “To be grown up is to slowly forget the things you wondered about as a child. He has realized this. And he doesn’t want to become a grown-up like that.” For many readers, Joel’s thoughtfulness and quiet fancies are his most sympathetic qualities; they will be reassured that, as he grows up, he seems determined to preserve that part of his nature.

Like Mankell’s other novels about Joel Gustafson, WHEN THE SNOW FELL is primarily about Joel’s inner life, despite the adventures and outrageous situations he sometimes finds himself in. Thoughtful readers who enjoy considering things the way Joel does will continue to appreciate this series and likely will be surprised by the new directions hinted at in the novel’s final chapters. These directions will be explored further in the next book about Joel and his father, due to be published in English in 2010.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 11, 2009

When the Snow Fell
by Henning Mankell

  • Publication Date: January 25, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0440240441
  • ISBN-13: 9780440240440