Brief disclaimer: Lars Walker is a friend and fellow author whose works I have admired for a long time, especially his Father Ailil stories set during the late Viking era. That said, I do my best to not be biased in representing my take on his efforts.
Troll Valley is the latest novel available from the keenly sharpened pen of author Lars Walker. I finished it last week and the impact of the narrative was such that I immediately felt like I wanted to write about it. However, the realization hit me that I needed to process the story a bit to actually speak properly to the scale of the work.
And so, here I am a two weeks later and I’m still processing. However, I think I can now place into words a pale reflection of how the story spoke to me.
Troll Valley comes with a tag-line of, “The fairy tale your grandparents never told you.” There is a fundamental truth in that. This is a fairy tale of the old, dark, original Grimm’s variety. Fairy is strange and dangerous and subtle – except when it’s not, but by then you’re already doomed so it doesn’t matter.
The story evolves from an initial scene of emergency intervention being conducted in the life of a young man of privilege: Shane Anderson. Shane wakes from his most recent bender in an upper room of the family’s mansion, securely strapped into a hospital bed and watched over by a detox specialist named Robert Swallowtail. During the course of their first conversation, Mr. Swallowtail presents the two main tools he plans on using to help Shane get his life back together: a bible and a stack of yellowed writing paper with a cover sheet that reads “Troll Valley: The Memoirs of Christian Anderson of Epsom, Minnesota”.
And that’s where the core of the story hits. The real main character of the novel is Christian Anderson – “Chris” to his family and friends. Through his words and impressions, we are introduced to rural farm life in Minnesota around the pivot of centuries between the 19th and 20th. Steam-powered threshing machines are high-tech with plenty of room for improvement. Horses are still prevalent and utilitarian as opposed to luxurious toys for people with disposable incomes. Cows are milked and wood is chopped by hand and life is lived close to the bone in terms of making it between fall and spring no matter whether you’re ahead or behind of your profit-loss curve.
And a young man born with withered arm has to face the fact that he’ll never be as whole or useful as his perfectly proportioned twin brother.
That malformed arm, however, is not the only trouble that dogs young Chris Anderson’s life. In an odd twist of fate, he is also beset with a strange sort of second sight that manifests whenever he is fearful or angry. At those times, the distinctive pointy scarlet hats of the traditional Norse red caps. I suppose we’d call them “gnomes” and picture cherubic cheeked little old men with pot bellies and long white beards given the things that have been marketed here in the States. However, the red caps that Chris sees are inherently and implicitly dangerous and he knows that instinctively. Thus he has learned from an early age to suppress his fear and anger to make the red caps go away. That suppression and his arm are the chief metal that go into the forge to make up the person that Chris Anderson starts out as and progresses to be during the story.
Thus, Troll Valley is both period piece and subtle dark fantasy. The biggest thing that this story is, though, is compelling. For me, the fact that the presentation of the characters and imagery rang so very true kept me well engrossed. Chris is no cardboard paragon. His voice via the memoirs reads with the full conflict of a young man attempting to deal with an increasingly sour home life as the story progresses. Nor does he live and grow in a vacuum. Lars’ knowledge and research of both Minnesota and the Norwegian immigrants who called it home has created a vibrant picture of how people lived and interacted during those early years of the 20th century.
One aspect of that time frame that needs special consideration is the power and presence of church life in a farming community. One thing that I have noted with disgust as I’ve wandered through the world of speculative fiction is how most authors actively seek to demean and marginalize any presentation of Christian life or values. In the minds of many of the self-appointed urban literary select, any kind of non-derogatory presentation of a church or the people within it is immediately dismissed as “Christian Fiction” that should never be seen outside of religious gift shops or allowed in public libraries.
Yet, Troll Valley could not be told without confronting such shallow bias head-on. The presence of the church, the attitudes of the people who support it, and the frailties and foibles of the humans who allow their hubris and hypocrisy to pollute their hearts have a direct affect on Chris Anderson’s choices. This book is not a poorly veiled sermon masquerading as a novel. It is a novel with compelling characters where the real, human affect of people who wrap themselves up with a righteous cloak called “The Church” end up causing all sorts of harm that Christ would never have wanted to see.
And, frankly, the “church” aspect is only one of many within the story. Lars’ uses Chris’ mother’s various obsessions with both prohibition and women’s suffrage to paint various shades of meaning into the world within the story. In fact, Sygne Anderson’s unhealthily self-righteous and busybody approach to these issues among others can easily be seen as an early precursor to the mania that drives the hedonism and amoral socialist tendencies of today’s Leftists. That inherent desire to force others to heave to an arbitrary humanist morality remains one of the greatest threats free societies face on an ongoing basis – and it only gets worse with time.
I have burned a lot of words trying to capture some of what makes Troll Valley such a great read. The truth is that my meager and shallow discussion of a few aspects of the story do little to capture the depth and traction the story holds. There are no glowing, glorious heroics in this story. Instead, we have flawed and fragile men and women who are doing their best to move forward in a hostile world. Mistakes are made – grim ones – and the people who can see more clearly than others become key to bringing back hope to a world that would otherwise have ended up washed in lifeless gray despair. So, rather than some rollicking fantasy adventure, Troll Valley is a journey through the hearts of two torn and desperate young men – and in its telling and conclusion dwell all sorts of questions you might want to ask yourself.