Lars Walker’s TROLL VALLEY is a very different sort of fantasy. Featuring Norwegian folklore, Christian theology and apologetica, and a young man who believes his deformed hand and arm will define him until the day he dies, TROLL VALLEY is as much about a vanished place and time — early 1900s America (specifically, Minnesota) — as it is about its titular hero, Christian Anderson.
This, of course, was no accident, because early 1900s Minnesota was known for having tight-knit farming communities that often relied heavily upon churches and religion to help hold the communities together. The strongest communities were like those Walker depicts in TROLL VALLEY: one religion (specifically, the Hauge version of Lutheranism, specific to 19th century Norway), one ethnicity (Norwegian), and one general purpose (farming). These common threads were what held people together, but they also could prove to be confining.
TROLL VALLEY opens with a frame story, that being about Shane Anderson — Christian’s great-great-grandson. Shane is a drug addict who has tried everything to kick his addiction to drugs. Now an Ojibway Indian has been hired by Shane’s mother to get Shane straight by any means necessary. (Walker’s character says he hates being called a “Native American” and would rather be called by his tribe if he must be characterized at all.) Shane’s only companion besides the Ojibway are two books — the Bible, and his great-great-grandfather’s memoir, this being the main story of TROLL VALLEY.
Getting back to the main story, it opens with Christian being eight years old. He knows he’s a cripple, or a freak — labels he thinks and quickly thrusts away — because of his left hand and arm being shrunken and difficult to use, and he knows he’s a burden on his family. Nevertheless, he’s fortunate because he has a Norwegian “fairy” Godmother, Margit (one of the huldre folk); Margit, while not human, believes strongly in Christianity and in human goodness, and loves Christian because in general, he’s a lovable child. But Christian doesn’t know this because his mother is extremely difficult, his father works very hard and doesn’t speak to him much, and his twin brother, Fred, who was born without any obvious physical flaws, bullies him. And his Bestefar (grandfather), who also loves Christian very much, isn’t the sort to go on and on about his feelings (not that many men raised in the 19th century were in any culture), which is why Margit place in Christian’s life is so very important.
But there are two other important people in Christian’s life. The first is Sophie, who is a ward of Christian’s parents; she’s raised with Christian, and he does his best to think of her as a sister. The second is Auggie, who is Christian’s best friend. Neither Sophie nor Auggie see Christian’s deformity as all that important; their opinions, roughly stated, would amount to this: “He’s deformed. So what?” But they’re unable to get through to Christian, who sees himself as a marked man who is permanently unlovable and will never be able to find anyone to care about him, all because of his withered arm.
Of course, Christian is wrong. Margit tries to tell him; even Fred tries to tell Christian, though Fred’s way of doing it (as Fred is an unrepentant sinner) leaves much to be desired. But Christian will have none of it, which is how Christian starts to become tempted by sin — in this case, the sin of self-absorption. And this radically transforms his life for the worse.
So, does Christian ever throw off his self-imposed chains? Does he figure out a way to enjoy his unusual family? Does he find his place in the world? And does he ever figure out what Margit is trying to tell him? (And for that matter, will his great-great-grandson Shane get free of the drugs?) All of these questions are answered, but they often lead to more and deeper questions.
Now, as for the weaknesses here? Christian himself doesn’t have a great deal of internal monologue, and I would’ve liked to see more. (Christian does have some, especially as a child, but as he gets older, he grows more closed.) I believe this was an author’s decision rather than something unwittingly left out, as it helps the narrative to see that even a good child who believes in God and Christ can be turned astray. But it hurt the overarching story a little bit when some of Christian’s feelings were implied rather than thought, stated, or shown, especially when it comes to how Christian deals with his two good friends, Sophie and Auggie.
In other words, while this was an absorbing story due to its historicity, the details about the Hauge version of Lutheranism, and all the Norwegian folklore, at times I felt Christian himself was a cipher — someone standing in as Everyman — rather than a fully developed character with wants and needs of his own. (Most of the time I could see Christian as himself, but sometimes this veneer of individuality slipped.) I’m aware that it’s very likely Walker wanted both — an individual character and someone who could stand in as Everyman — but this balance doesn’t often work quite right. This is why in some ways the story works better as Christian apologetica (something like an updated, more serious version of C.S. Lewis) than as a Christian-inspired fantasy, though it does succeed at both.
TROLL VALLEY is interesting and quite different as it relies upon Norwegian folklore and early American history for its sense of place. It’s imaginative and often moving, but don’t expect a quick read as the issues Christian is wrestling with are weighty and difficult. Still, if you enjoy fantasy, history with a bit of folklore, or Christian apologetica that’s as long on imagination as it is on its knowledge of scripture, you will enjoy TROLL VALLEY.
— reviewed by Barb