With the Lapps in the High Mountains by Emilie Demant Hatt (thoughts)
It’s snowing outside my window, and Thistle and I just got back from a delicious wintry walk, which makes me want to write about something seasonally appropriate. So let’s talk about With the Lapps in the High Mountains by Emilie Demant Hatt. Hatt was a Dane born in the late nineteenth century with an adventurous soul. In her early 30s, she went with her sister on a train trip across Lapland, which sparked her interest in the native Lapp people (nowadays called Sami, in accordance with their own language, so that’s what I’ll use from now on). She arranged to live with them for a year, from the summer of 1907 to 1908, and in 1913 published a book about the experience. 100 years later, Barbara Sjoholm published her translation, so that English speakers could go on Hatt’s adventure with her (Sjoholm also has a website with more information about Hatt if you’re interested).
Usually, when reading historical travelogues, you find yourself making all kinds of apologies for the racism or sexism or colonialism you encounter therein. With the Lapps in the High Mountains is stunningly free of such prejudice; Hatt was writing at a time when most Scandinavians considered the Sami dirty, lazy people whose reindeer got in the way of honest farmers and whose children should be sent to state sponsored boarding schools in order to become civilised (sound familiar?). Hatt confronts these beliefs head on, demonstrating in the account of Sami daily life how mistaken they are, and occasionally explaining how destructive state policies were to their traditional, nomadic lifestyle. There is a shade of pastoral idealism at times, but no more than you would find nowadays, in a blogger waxing lyrical about the simple pleasures of farm life, and Hatt never minimizes the challenges of such a life.
This genuine curiousity and respect for the Sami makes for a wonderfully engaging travelogue. No detail of daily life is too small to escape Hatt’s observations, and she easily transports her readers into a Sami tent, drinking coffee around the smoking fire after climbing into your furs, or into the great northern woods in winter, skiing in pursuit of the reindeer herd. At one point, she’s trying to sew a new dress in time for a gathering and finding it difficult in winter conditions (little light, except what the smoky fire provides). She shares the following moment, which illustrates a major difference between Lapp life and her own background:
One day when we were going to set off on trek, and all was in order, the tent taken down, the sleds packed, and we were just sitting outside waiting for the pack reindeer, Sara said, “You must take out your needlework, you don’t have time to sit idle if the dress is going to get done.” That was true enough and you could just as well, if you didn’t freeze, sit outside and sew under the open sky in winter as well as summer. I hauled out my sewing bag and got far with the hemming before the reindeer came.
For tha Lapps, the wilderness, forest, and mountains are their ordinary living room. Their home is where they happen to find themselves. They don’t need four walls to feel secure or to work at household tasks.
I’m going to share another passage, so you get an idea of her capacity for scenic description:
The string glided slowly upward, steadily over the snow to the high mountains. Everything was so strangely shapeless and unreal that night. We went forward in a numb white-gray darkness that could never lighten. A sharp wind blew around the top layer of fine snow; in circles and streams it glided over the endless expanses. No other sound was heard than the fine crunching of the snow and the footsteps of the reindeer. Something soft, half unseen, once came brushing closely past, rapid and ghostlike up from the mountain slope. It was a pair of white foxes.
Of course, such passages are actually Sjoholm’s translation; I don’t read Danish, so I can’t actually compare her to Hatt’s original, but reading the book, I always got a strong sense of narrative voice that ‘felt’ right for the period and place. So I feel comfortable praising the translation! This is a real gem of a book, and Sjoholm did us all a favour in making it available for an English reading audience (she did me the more personal favour of sending me a review copy almost two years ago, which didn’t influence my love for the book except to make me happy I had a copy for my own shelves).
There are not a lot of classic travelogues to begin with, and especially there are not many that are sensitive portrayals of a culture and environment different from the author’s own. This makes With the Lapps in the High Mountains all the more valuable, but it also stands on its own merits. Emilie Demant Hatt was an excellent story teller and the kind of quietly adventurous woman who I just love. Anyone curious about how others live, or who enjoys travel lit, or Scandinavia, or reading ‘forgotten’ classics will have a grand time with this. Really, I can’t imagine a reader who wouldn’t enjoy it!