I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through Edelweiss. This was published in the original Norwegian in 1957 and this English version has been translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes.
This book was an unexpected surprise that pulled at my heart strings. Mattis and his sister Hege live in the Norwegian countryside in a simple cottage by a lake. Mattis is mentally challenged and he is constantly attempting to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him. He has the mind of a child; he becomes excited at the simplest things like the woodcock which flies over their cottage. He has a deep fear of abandonment and is afraid that his sister, who is his only caretaker, can be snatched from him at any moment. And when he cannot make others understand him he becomes bewildered and frustrated. I became completely absorbed in Mattis’ simple and constricted world.
The hardest parts of the story to read were those in which Mattis goes out into the surrounding countryside to look for work. His sister supports them both by knitting sweaters so money is always tight and they live very simply. Even though Mattis has a hard time doing the simplest tasks, like thinning turnips and stacking hay, his sister still insists on sending him into town to find a way to make some income. His mind cannot coordinate with his hands and he becomes easily confused and frustrated. Whenever he goes to beg for work he is humiliated because everyone in town knows who he is and they call him “Simple Simon.” The people in town, however, are never cruel to him; they came up with what is supposed to be a harmless nickname for Mattis who is a well-known figure in town. But every time someone calls him Simple Simon he is embarrassed and frustrated because he hates being defined by this phrase which he can never escape. There is a deeper lesson in this book about being careful with our names or labels for others even when we are not intentionally being hurtful.
One day at the suggestion of Mattis’ sister, he decides that he will use his old, worn out boat to ferry people across the lake. Rowing is something that he is good at and he loves spending time on the water. On his first day of work, Mattis is lucky enough to come upon one customer, a lumberjack who has arrived in town looking for work. Jørgen is the first and only person to take a ride on Mattis’ ferry service. That fateful ferry ride brings Mattis’ sister Hege joy and companionship while it brings Mattis frustration and loneliness.
Although the story is mostly told from Mattis’ point of view, we do get a glimpse of what Hege’s life has been like trying to take care of Mattis. Hege is forty years-old, has never married or had a family of her own and she doesn’t seem to have any friends either. She has pretty much devoted her whole existence to taking care of her brother. Hege becomes easily agitated with Mattis’ constant questions and emotional neediness. When Hege has the chance to find love and companionship with Jørgen, she begins to act differently towards Mattis because her time and attention are no longer completely devoted to him alone. One the one hand Hege has the right to her own life and her own happiness, but on the other hand she still has an obligation to care for and protect her brother.
This is a quiet novel that deserves much more attention. As a teacher I am confronted with students who have a vast array of mental, emotional and physical disabilities. But seeing the world through the eyes of Mattis has made me even more sensitive and acutely award of what it is like to be labeled as “different” by the rest of the world.
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