I imagine that life on a farm forces one to live mostly in the present, with an eye to the next season or year. There are so many jobs that need doing all the time that only a few hours here or there might be available for introspection or reminiscence. It’s certainly a perfect place for Sverre Hirifjell to not talk to his grandson about the past. After Sverre dies, Edvard starts to dig into all the family history that everyone kept with him for all those years. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, by Lars Mytting (and beautifully translated by Paul Russell Garrett), relates the story of Edvard’s long, tangled family saga—and how it intersects with the two World Wars.
The name “Somme” instantly makes me think about World War I, and the nearly five-month-long battle that claimed more than one million lives. But it takes us a while to get there because Edvard has to follow scant clues. Family letters and things he faintly remembers from a fatal family trip to France in 1971 take him from the family farm in Norway to the Shetlands and back to France. It also takes him from 1989 to 1971 to 1943 and finally to 1916.
Mytting keeps all of the focus on Edvard rather than diving into the politics and history of the World Wars. This is a very effective choice because it constantly reminds us of how great and terrible events can sweep people up and irreparably change their lives. If Sverre hadn’t joined the Nasjonal Samling, his brother Einar wouldn’t have disappeared in an effort to get Sverre back on the farm. If Einar hadn’t gone to France in the 1930s, he wouldn’t have become a master craftsman sought after by an old soldier who has a plan to restore the family fortunes. The way that events shape people in The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is mirrored in the trees that Einar used to work on. Near the Hirifjell farm is a stand of flame-birch trees. These birch trees are bound with iron bands that cause the wood to grow into beautiful patterns. Pain makes beauty: in these trees, in the titular trees…and in the lives of the Hirifjell family.
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is the kind of book that makes me think about author choices. There were several times where characters filled Edvard in on their piece of the pie that I thought violated the rule about telling instead of showing. While I think the decision about keeping the focus tight on the family was a good one, I wish that more characters had been able to show us their stories instead of having someone tell Edvard. We’re told a lot about why this character or that does something. Actually having those chapters told from their perspectives would have raised the emotional stakes and made this book even more of a knockout. I wanted more of Sverre and Einar and Edvard’s lost family and the businessman who plays such a big role in the family.
All that said, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a very interesting read. It’s unlike any other family/war story I’ve read; I really liked that this novel took me to corners of Europe that I hadn’t visited before in fiction. I also really liked Edvard. His confusion felt very real to me. Most protagonists I meet have clear objectives and fairly clear plans for achieving them. Edvard, however, isn’t sure what he wants and he has a lot of information to process about his family. Who is he? How have they shaped him? What is his inheritance? And where should he put down roots? All these questions—and the skillful writing—make me think that this would be an excellent read for fans of family sagas.