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Kristín Ómarsdóttir: Hér (Children in Reindeer Woods)

In an unnamed country, there is a small refuge for children, called Children in Reindeer Woods, sheltering a few adults and children. At the beginning of the novel, a group of soldiers arrives and proceeds to shoot all the adults, all but one of the children and the dog. We do not learn the reason for this, though we later learn that there seems to be a foreign invasion. A twelve-year old girl, Billie, manages to hide under a bush and is spared. She watches as the soldiers enters the house. She hears shooting and then only one of the soldiers returns. He laters drags all the bodies out – the shot adults and children and his companions – and buries them. Billie then appears and he seem to take to her. Rafael – he introduces himself – treats her well, bathes her, feeds her and appears to look after her. Indeed, he says that he has always wanted to own a farm like this. But Rafael is a soldier, whether he likes it or not. Can he change and become a farmer and a father/carer to Billie?

The farm is very isolated so Rafael feels he can now change and become a a farmer, feeding the chickens, milking the cows and tending the crops. Ironically, the one thing he does not how to do is slaughter the sheep. But, for now, that does not matter. Billie, for her own part, goes along with all of this. As a twelve-year old, she varies between being a child – playing with Barbies, refusing to do any work, because of child labour laws – and being a young adult, a young maid, as she tells Rafael, not a girl. He says he wants her to drive a car and she is happy to drive and, of course, as she has seen in films, if she drives, she must smoke, so she asks Rafael to give her a cigarette. As a responsible adult, he gives her one, but just one and no more. She seems to take the killings in her stride, as though this is the natural order of things. She tells Rafael about the people he had shot, particularly Marius, the former ballet dancer, who had been in love with Maria, also a dancer. Marius had been a good ballet dancer but Maria not so good and had ended up as a dancer in a nightclub but had been determined to keep her independence, including her independence from Marius. As a result, he had ended up here, eager to escape from the world. Billie claimed to be in love with him, not so much because she was but because, in films, you had to be in love with someone. She even wrote him a pretend letter from Maria.

However, despite the isolation, there is a war. People do arrive. First, there is Peter, a parachutist who has brought supplies for Rafael’s group. Peter is the most incompetent or unluckiest parachutist around, always landing in the wrong place. In this case, he breaks his ankle. The next day he disappears, returning to his base, says Rafael, though we suspect otherwise. The two tax inspectors come. Despite the war, they say, they must collect taxes, even in this remote area. Then there is the nun. But is she a nun or is she a spy? And how did she manage to come to this place? Finally, there is Isaac. He is the shepherd who regularly visits the house and looks after the sheep in the hills.

Billie adapts – she thought she’d learned to behave like a farm girl quite well from movies, a mix between street kid and a lollygagging, well-looked-after darling. It is less clear that Rafael had adapted, at least when any threat arose. In a war, can we put the war aside and behave as normal people or, once we have seen violence or, worse still, carried out violent acts, does this become second nature to us? This is the question Ómarsdóttir raises but we are left to answer it.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Salka
First published in English 2012 by Open Letter
Translated by Lytton Smith