In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.
Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.
Billie labels Rafael a murderer: an odd title for a soldier whose profession it is to kill people. This begins to blur the line between soldier and civilian life. However, in spite of the harsh label she bestows on Rafael, Billie is hopeful in the way that is characteristic of childhood but has ideas and wisdom beyond her years, trusting Rafael and the circumstances but still questioning him without disobeying him when she suspects he has killed an unexpected visitor who goes missing. In some ways, Rafael becomes the family that she lost when she was left at the temporary home for children in Reindeer Woods, whose whereabouts we do not know (other than that they are in fact alive). Billie’s discussion with the chickens in the henhouse captures her unique perspective:
“Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today’s Saturday, and that’s when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God’s natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.”
Billie’s story is even stranger and more fantastical than she is as a character. Additionally, there are many different displacements that strip away the setting and add a mythical, fable-like quality to the story—the presence of modern-technology, including cell phones and computers, is confounded by a strange sense of tradition where little girls still curtsy and wear fancy dresses and lace socks daily. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the story takes place, because although the story is translated from Icelandic, Iceland does not have a military, the name “Rafael” has Italian or Spanish roots, and at one point the word “señorita” is used to refer to a woman. These displacements seclude Rafael and Billie in a dream-like setting where Billie’s dolls carry out conversations (with Billie and Rafael guiding them, of course) and sometimes kill themselves as part of their dramas, and where Billie’s father is a puppet who is ensnared by her mother by refusing to securely sew back on his damaged arm and thereby handicapping him:
One time, when Abraham’s arm ripped off during a brawl between the puppeteers about what should happen whether to go home or to the pub, Soffia refused to sew it back on; she took the torn arm and hid it. Borrowing a wheelchair was easy for a doctor, and so began a period of diligence in which Abraham sat at Soffia’s home in the wheelchair and wrote his work of jurisprudence; Soffia worked her shifts, and between them she sat at home too, reading medical books and pushing Abraham around in a wheelchair. She enjoyed pushing him. He enjoyed letting her push him because he loved depending on her, a change from the time when he didn’t want to depend on anyone Amidst this peaceful medical work, writing, and reading, Billie arrived. No-one had expected that. Abraham had thought his life’s mission on earth was not to have children, thought he was meant to break the mold, to exceed the frame that had been planned for him. It occurred to him that he might abandon mother and daughter before everything became too complicated and messy. Then he would leave behind a little souvenir which, amusingly enough, would grow larger, and he could fulfill his obligations as jurist somewhere else in peace and quiet.
My love, sew my arm back on, asked Abraham.
Soffia: No, Abraham. It isn’t good for you to drink beer now.
The disembodied and surreal nature of wartime that Ómarsdóttir in this story prevents the reader from knowing what is in fact real in Billie’s world, Reindeer Woods, or what is being fabricated through the eyes of a child or a nation fogged over by war. However, the dreamlike nature of the novel only increases its appeal, and makes Children in Reindeer Woods a more memorable tale.
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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