Sabine Forsblom was born in 1961 in the town of Borgå, on the south coast of Finland, where she still lives. Before publishing The Dandelion God, her first novel, in 2004, she spent fifteen years working in television, and is currently working as a teacher in Borgå.
The Dandelion God is an epic family saga narrated by Bettina, a young girl whose interpretation of the lives of her mother’s and father’s families through the turbulent events of twentieth-century Finnish history is characterized by a naive and at times absurd tone. The daily life of the Swedish-speaking working class – a social group that is seldom the focus of literary fiction – is an often bitter struggle for survival, in which the rigidity of class structures reinforces the lack of ambition imposed upon the characters. Yet the bright lights of Helsingfors and the glimpses of luxury on offer at the local cinema each week provide relief from the daily grind, and the promise that life will eventually get easier.
The Dandelion God is full of memorable characters and incidents, and is written in the spontaneous and compulsively readable style of a born story-teller. The two chapters presented here introduce Bettina’s paternal grandparents.
From reviews of The Dandelion God:
“You don’t need to read many pages of Sabine Forsblom’s debut novel The Dandelion God to realize that she is a writer of no little talent. I would even dare to suggest that this book is something of a sensation. Seldom does one encounter such an accomplished debut, and isn’t hard to see that the novel will be the cause of much debate.”
Sten-Erik Abrahamsson, Arbetarbladet
“The Dandelion God is in no way the traditional tale of misery that its subject matter may lead one to suspect. It is far too full of vibrant life for this, too warm and delicately conciliatory, too enticing and captivating, too colourful and drastically humourous.”
Bror Rönnholm, Åbo Underrättelser
In the depths of Nanna and Grandpa’s cellar it smelled of mould. A damp, stale smell of potato mould and cool granite. Down in Nanna and Grandpa’s cellar you could see the bedrock the house stood on. Huge and grey and shining, as if it had been polished, it lay there and gleamed as you came down the cellar steps. Huge and grey and shining it lay there and waited.
It was in no hurry.
Nanna and Grandpa’s house was a worker’s cottage painted yellow with white corner-joints. It stood on a low hill surrounded by birches. That’s how it got its name, Lövkulla. The best place in the house was the kitchen. From the window you could see the birches and the fields, and you could step through the kitchen door right into the garden.
When you ran from the house to the sauna on Saturday evenings you ran through different smells. First, by the kitchen steps, the aroma of coffee and home-made buns and bread, then the scent of sawdust and resin by the woodshed; then hens and chickweed, then rotting leaves and potato peelings by the compost heap. There was a slight whiff of pigs there, too, and a hint of sheep's wool. Then you could smell the dry stones when you ran over the stone bridge and then the faint smell of granite rocks and dry peat moss and newly chopped logs and smoke – and then you were in the sauna.
Afterwards we sat at the kitchen table where we always sat when there was something important to do. Nanna and Grandpa sat in their places opposite each other and went through their practised routines. Grandpa brought out his little mirror and propped it up on its stand, then his razor blade, shaving cream and bowl, a small pair of nail scissors and a soft shaving brush. Nanna brought out her comb, curlers and hairpins, her hairnet and her tin of Nivea.
When Grandpa came out of the sauna he looked like a walrus. His hair was wet and thin and reddish-brown and plastered to his scalp, and his bald head shone through like a little brown mushroom. His nose looked bigger than usual and coarse yellow hair stuck out from his nostrils and his ears. His eyebrows grew down into his eyes.
First he shaved. He only shaved on Saturday evenings after his sauna, when his beard was soft. Grandpa used a shaving brush and soap, always cutting himself a lot and patching each cut with a torn piece of paper bag. Then I took the nail scissors and first cut the hairs from his eyebrows, which grew down into his eyes, then the ones which grew out of his nostrils and last the ones which stuck out of his ears in waxy clouds.
Nanna still looked like Nanna, even after the sauna. She didn’t have as much to tidy up as Grandpa. She combed her hair, put in the narrow serrated curlers, holding them in place with hairpins, pulled her hairnet over the top and rubbed Nivea into her hands. She finished by wiping her palms once over her face. When her hair had dried she took out the curlers and had wavy hair that lasted all week.
When Nanna had finished doing her hair she did mine, scraping it back into a long plait. Then we sat all three on the hammock for a while and rested, Nanna with her shiny, scrubbed face and bumps on her head, Grandpa with his polished dome and white fish scales of paper on his face, and me with a glowing face and hair stretched back so tight that my eyes were pulled outwards. A walrus, a humpback whale and their faithful human friend, the pink Chinese girl.
Lövkulla had two floors. On the ground floor was the kitchen and another room. In the kitchen there was the cooker and draining board, the table and four chairs. In the other room was the pullout bed, the sofa, the rocking chair, the dining-room suite and the linen cupboard. The linen cupboard was Nanna’s treasure chest. In it she kept her linen tablecloths, sheets, towels, feather quilts and pillows, and her gold. The gold consisted of a Bismarck bracelet with matching necklace, a brooch with a purple stone, Grandpa’s cufflinks and a dozen silver spoons which belonged to her best coffee service. And the three gold coins she had been given by the old lady up at the big house (you may well wonder).
You could walk out of this room into the hall and round into the kitchen again. In the hall was Nanna’s larder. It was cool, had its own light and shelves that covered the walls all the way up to the ceiling. Sourdough loaves, butter, cheese, smoked bacon, jellied meats, buns, apple purée, blackcurrant jelly... oh, there were many tasty things and lovely smells in Nanna’s larder. Nanna was known for her good food and especially her delicious bread which she gave out right, left and centre in the village when she had been baking. Especially to all the finer people.
On the first floor of Lövkulla lived Linnea, Grandpa’s sister, in a bedsit without a kitchen, and the attic was up there too, smelling of sawdust and newly-washed mats.
Lövkulla was a wonderful place. The best in all the world.
Nanna had the roughest and hardest hands I knew. The palms were completely wrecked: scaly, callused and thick like gloves. It almost hurt when she rubbed Nivea into my face and my thin strands of hair got tangled in her fingers and stuck to her palms. But they were soft, too, in a way. On the inside.
In the mornings we washed ourselves outside on the steps with rainwater in an enamel bowl. Then we drank coffee with slices of bread and butter and then Nanna and I would start our morning rounds. First we took eggshells, seeds and scraps of food to the chickens, then leftovers and water to the pig, and last of all hay to the sheep. I was allowed to ride on it.
Most of all I liked the pig. It lived in its own little house in a pen. I used to tickle its ears and brush it with a hard brush. One summer Nanna and Grandpa didn’t have a pig so I lived in the little house, with a rug on the floor and a latch on the door and outside, in the pen, I had my garden. Grandpa and I planted wild flowers, the kind which only bloom for a day. He ploughed up most of his hay fields that summer.
There was also another kind of animal at Nanna and Grandpa’s, lots of them, especially indoors. At a distance they looked small and black as they came flying towards you, but when you looked closer you could see how their bodies shone blue-green and purple. During the day I could lie on my bed and let them crawl over my body. All over my feet, round my ankles, up my legs, over my stomach and my arms. I liked it best when they crept over my face. They had tiny legs that left delicious trails on my skin, and a cold tongue which they felt with. A long teasing trail and wet dots. Teasing trails and wet dots. Wet dots and long teasing trails over my face. When they crept on my lips it tickled so much that I almost couldn't stop myself from scratching. But I fought against it and the fly crawled on, oblivious. That’s when I almost burst, and that was the best of all. To resist and to overcome.
But despite the fact that Nanna had resisted and overcome all her life she did not understand bursting lungs and flies creeping over your face. Good Lord above, they eat all kinds of muck, they do, she said. You’ve had things plastered on your face that others have had up their backsides, and who knows what kind of deadly diseases they spread about. Well, it was a risk I was willing to take. And that business about deadly diseases she said only because she didn’t want fly-specks on her windows when the finer people sat in her kitchen and ate up her bread and cakes.
Grandpa didn’t care about flies and deadly diseases and other dangers. He understood there were more important things. He was the one who kept the rope taught between the birches when Nilla and I walked tightrope and fell and bruised ourselves black and blue. And he was the one who picked us up and went indoors to fetch the umbrella so that we could balance better. And he was our faithful audience when we put on our play, Home.
We performed our play Home on the slope outside the barn where Grandpa chopped logs. In the play we cleaned and swept and ate dinner and washed-up. Then I asked Nilla to go out and get some logs and I stood alone on stage while Nilla waited with the logs until I had done my bit. Then she came in and I had a go at her, telling her what a useless man she was, and what had I done to be punished like this, and then the performance was over. We stood at the front of the stage and bowed. Then we took a few steps back, and then forward again.
We gave several performances of that play every summer.
Nilla was my second cousin and my best summer friend, just like her dad had been my dad’s best friend. Tage and Stigo. Who seduced all those women. If you believed them, that is. My dad’s mum and Nilla’s dad’s mum were sisters.
Every morning, after the chores were done, I jumped on my bike and pedalled away to Nilla’s. First you cycled down the long slope from Lövkulla, then took a sharp right onto the road to the village. Then you cycled past Luba’s, who was Nanna and Grandpa’s closest neighbour. Actually he was called Helenius, but Nanna had christened him Luba after a nigger king in Africa called Lumumba. For some reason, Nanna didn’t like that nigger king. And Nanna hated Luba.
Luba and his wife couldn't have children of their own so they’d adopted one. They beat him and whipped him all the time, and in the winter he was made to stand outside on the steps without a shirt or shoes if he had done something wrong again. Such as eat too much. Often in the winter he stood outside and shivered and cried and banged on the door, calling his mum and dad. In the hope they would let him in. Saying he would be good now. It didn’t help much and often it was only when he had curled into a little ball and stopped yelling that they let him in. Or the door would be opened a crack so he could creep in.
Now Luba’s boy was grown up and had left home and become a guest of the prison service. Nanna gave Helenius the name Luba and erected a thick wall of hatred, which brooded in the lilac hedge. I gave him murderous looks if ever I happened to meet his gaze, which I tried to avoid as much as possible. He was in league with the devil.
Nanna hated child abuse. When I was little.
Immediately after Luba’s you went past the meadow where the Kulaks’ place had once been, where Adam Kulak had lived. It was said that Adam Kulak had come from Poland via Russia, although no one knew for sure. He was just there one day, draining marshland for Franzén. All the marshland from Österby up to Storkärr had been drained by him, and a lonely job it was. He had few friends in the village, but he didn’t need any. He had his little woman and that was enough for him. Together they had built their shack and together they grew their flowers. The flowers at the Kulaks’ place grew taller and more profusely than anywhere else. They grew so tall and profuse that they concealed the little house completely.
The house had rotted away a long time ago but the apple and cherry trees still bloomed like they used to, in the spring, and here and there a rose bush had made its way along the ground and broken through the tall grass. The Kulaks’ was one of the many magical places in Österby which fed the village’s need for fantasy. Our need cried out, mine and Nilla’s.
After the Kulaks’ you went through a little forest of spruce trees and then came out into the open fields. The wide, yellow wheat fields which stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way to the sea. Clouds of blue cornflowers billowed against me as I sailed by on my bicycle. The shimmering sun beat down on my head and shoulders, hands and knees. In the distance you could hear seagulls. And if you really looked hard you could almost see out across the bay and catch a glimpse of Backisbisin sitting on Hästholmen, waiting for the mermaid.
Backisbisin had lived in the same cottage as Grandpa and Linnea when they were little. A small, leathery old man who had stayed on at the cottage, all on his own in the corner of one room, after his wife had died. People said she suffered from a bad heart and that Backisbisin had tickled her to death. That he had given her a going over every evening for all those years until she died of a heart attack right in the middle of the proceedings.
When Grandpa’s family moved in, Backisbisin was ninety-two years old and had never been to a doctor or been prescribed any medicine in his life. If he got a cold he cooked tea from hawthorn bark, and if his chest hurt he swallowed a teaspoon of tar and he got better. And whether it was because of the peculiar medicine he took or because he had caused his wife’s death, Backisbisin was not like other people. He was in touch with the spirits.
One night when he was sleeping, a mermaid had knocked on his window and promised to grant his wish for forgiveness and to have his wife back. He was to meet the mermaid and his wife out on Hästholmen the following day at noon.
It was a baking hot summer day with a cloudless sky. Already at dawn Backisbisin had shoved the boat out and begun rowing towards Hästholmen. From the cottage steps they watched him row with short strokes, spray flying, towards the small island, in his best suit and a white shirt. His bald head shone in the sun. In the evening they watched him row home again. Slowly, for he was an old man and had sat for half a day in the sun on an outcrop of rock in the sea. They saw how he came ashore, secured the boat, walked along the jetty and carried on up the track towards the stream and the little bridge. Halfway to the stream he began to jerk violently backwards. Several times he almost fell and each time he hit out behind him in terror as he staggered forward. He crawled over the little bridge when he came to it.
When Backisbisin reached home he was very agitated and told them how he had sat and waited for a long time on Hästholmen, but the mermaid had tricked him. She didn’t come with my old lady, he said, and she didn’t come at dinner time, neither. When the mermaid finally arrived it was almost four o’clock and all she had with her was half a loaf. Not only that, when he was on his way home and walking along the track towards the stream, he had felt the hot breath of the Devil himself as he tried to drag him underground, and Backisbisin knew that when he got to the bridge the Devil would try to throw him in the water. But I was too wily for him, he said, too wily I was, and I crawled over the bridge and he didn’t get me.
There must have been other people in Österby who were afraid of the devil. Why else were there so many who staggered about or crawled along the ditches and over the bridges?
The gravel crunched beneath the wheels and the wind whipped your hair, and after the wheat field you cycled up Knyckin and down the other side. At the bottom the road turned sharply to the left, so you had to watch out and not go too fast down the hill, but not too slowly either because then you couldn’t manage to get up the next one immediately after. Just where you began to cycle up again was Byman’s old grey smithy. Byman was the blacksmith who had died a long time ago, luckily, because he was a right sod. Big and fat and black and sweaty, he sat outside the smithy all day, belching. There wasn't much work to speak of, but Byman made sure there was always food on the table for his family by other means. He fished. At night, in other people’s nets. He’d had an illegitimate child with a farm girl and all because Byman had repaired the girl’s bicycle. When she asked how much he wanted, he told her, and that’s how the child arrived. Both the girl and the baby had died shortly after the birth, which was the best thing for all involved. Nobody really knows whether his wife cared about it. But on the other hand, Paddån had also been young once and maybe, just maybe, she had dreamed of a happy life. Now she was at least a hundred years old, looked like Arafat and was never taken seriously. She felt the cold and was very sickly. She and Byman didn’t have any children. It stank in her house.
When you had cycled past the smithy you had to pedal extra hard to get up the slope and the very moment you were up at the top, down you went again. In the middle of the slope you had to swing to the left and then onto the side road that led to Nilla’s.
If I hadn’t lived at Lövkulla I would have thought Nilla’s gran and grandad’s place was the nicest in all of Österby. You entered their garden along a little drive with a rocky outcrop on the left and a field on the right, with a greenhouse and sauna. When you were inside the garden there was the white house with its glass veranda right in front of you, and the rocks still rising up on the left. Perched up there was the little playhouse, and behind the big house was the flower garden, lower down, as if in a valley. Nilla’s gran had just as many flowers in her flower-beds and rockery as my Nanna. There were roses and peonies and asters and summer annuals, as well as all the plants in the rockery whose names no one quite knew.
Behind the swing a small path wound around the rocks and further along the path was Paddån’s house. We used to sneak up and spy on her from the ditch by the roadside, although only if we had nothing else to do, which we did have most of the time. We mainly played under the apple trees in the garden, wrapped in Nilla’s gran’s old curtains, pretending we were the beautiful lady from the castle who pined away for... well, who just pined away. We both liked dressing up as other people and pretending that we lived a different kind of life from our own.
Nanna and Grandpa hadn’t always lived at Lövkulla. They had moved there from Babel. Babel was next to Jerusalem, Fågelholkin and Kartångin. They were worker’s houses on two floors and lay huddled together in a group on Himelsbacken. Ten flats, each with one room and a kitchen. The families could decide how many there was room for in a one-roomed flat. Usually each family decided there was room for quite a few.
Nanna and Grandpa and all the others at Himelsbacken worked for Franzén at his saw mill. It was Franzén who owned the big house, the sawmill, Babel, Jerusalem and Kartångin.
The sawmill lay by the rapids, right in the middle of the village. It was always busy there, with men and women scurrying around like ants in an anthill. The wood was sawn on two floors and in the cellar was all the machinery. Drive belts and wires and ropes and cog wheels, small and large, keeping the sawmill going. No one was allowed down there without permission. Especially not women wearing skirts, in case the skirts got caught in the cogwheels and dragged the women in. That had been known to happen.
When the timber had been sawn it was transported out to the timber yard and from there to the river and then on to the freight company. From there it went by steam ship to Borgå and Helsingfors and then far, far away. At least as far as London.
Österby was an important place on the map, in daily contact with the rest of the world.
In Österby people lived according to their status, in relation to the big house. The priest lived nearest, then the school teacher and then everyone else. Nobody lived on the same side on the river as Franzén. He was the boss and lived in the biggest and finest mansion in the whole area. The barons and counts in neighbouring villages couldn’t compare with him. They did have towers and turrets of their own, but not in the same way as Franzén. It was important for Franzén to have the biggest mansion with the most towers because he was neither baron nor count, but only the boss who had begun his working life as a forestry worker in Lovisa. He had wanted to make something of his life so he started to save money. Gradually he bought plots of land and farmsteads whose owners had made one too many bad business deals. His empire grew slowly but surely, taking over one farm at a time. He took the name Franzén because he thought it sounded a little better than Malmberg. Which of course it did.
Then one day he found he had bought up so many farmsteads and so much land and become so rich that he could buy the Österby estate.
He hadn’t done badly; the estate had forests, a farm, a boatyard and an inn, all going back to the seventeenth century. Or was it the sixteenth? One or the other. But by the time Franzén bought Österby it had fallen into insolvency, as they say, and was in a quite a bad state. Insolvency. That was what it was always like when Franzén took over. He could sit and congratulate himself from his mansion but he would also come to know what hard times felt like, except he was already dead then, of course.
When Franzén came to Österby he decided to build the biggest and most imposing house in the whole area, and so he built the big house. At the same time he put up buildings to house the offices, and he put them right on the spot where the old church had stood since the seventeenth century. Or was it the sixteenth? He pulled it down, anyway, and built his offices there, and also a larger barn for farm use, which he constructed right on top of the old churchyard. Old bones and skulls belonging to former Österby folk came up to the surface and Franzén collected them in a huge pile and had them buried them in the cemetery of another parish. Far away from Österby.
The counts and barons could not associate with Franzén, of course, and Franzén could not associate with ordinary people. So Franzén lived alone, on his side of the river.