My rating: 8.5/10
Bárbmo is the mystical place in Lapland folklore where the migrating birds fly away to; some never go there, like the jays. The riddle of the intriguing title is made clear in the final pages of this engrossing historical fiction novel.
Fourteen-year-old Ingeborg lives on the remote Norwegian island of Draugoy, where her family household, consisting of her widowed father, an aunt, and elderly hired help Per (an obviously troubled man with a mysterious past), eke out a precarious but modestly comfortable living through farming and fishing. But even their small and isolated society is about to feel the effects of events in the greater world. It is 1940, and Hitler’s troops are advancing through Europe and into neutral Norway, with an aim to annex Norway’s ice-free shipping ports and to ensure crucial supplies of iron ore from Sweden which was handled through the Norwegian shipping system.
Norway falls under German control without much resistance; the royal family and the government escape to England to form a government-in-exile for the next five years; thousands of young Norwegian men begin to filter out of their homeland to train with Allied forces in other parts of Europe, and in Scotland and England; and as the years turn over even the farthest settlements are occupied by troops of the Wehrmacht.
This is the greater historical background to Ingeborg’s story, and against it the more detailed personal events of the novel take place. Our young heroine struggles with her place in her family, fiercely resenting her aunt’s attempts at turning her into a “proper” Norwegian housewife; Ingeborg would rather be out roaming the woods with her dog Benne, or out in the barn with the animals, or sitting with Per and badgering him for tales of his travels. Her father treats her with deep love but yet with a patronizing attitude, never letting Ingeborg forget that she will never be a part of his man’s world. He refuses to discuss her mother with her; there is some great mystery there which all of the adults skirt meticulously around, as if protecting Ingeborg from something which will harm her.
Being a properly traditional bildungsroman, Ingeborg tenaciously discovers the secrets of her origin. She faces and overcomes the loss of everything she holds dear, and in the end discovers who she really is and where she really belongs.
This novel is short and aimed at a juvenile audience, so by necessity glosses over large periods of time and merely hints at some events, but the author pauses at perfectly timed intervals to go into the exquisite details of Ingeborg’s inner and outer lives; the novel is beautifully written. The horrors of war are unflinchingly discussed; the evils of the Nazi regime and the atrocities surrounding the scorched earth policy of the retreat from northern Norway are tellingly depicted.
If there is any weakness to this story, it is that the realities spoken of – the historical facts – are so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, making accompanying research a necessity – heads up to those using this novel as part of a social studies/history curriculum. Some details of the story are also perhaps a bit too lightly touched on, but appropriately so for the intended youthful audience.
But don’t overdo the background research; let the story tell itself, because it is first and foremost just that, a personal story of a quest for self-understanding. The dramatic events which unfold are viewed through a single set of eyes, that of the young narrator.
The seasons of the Scandinavian northland, the months without sun, the joy of returning daylight, the nomadic travels of the reindeer-herding Laplanders and their yearly brief relationship with the farmers and fishermen of the summer ranges are all wonderfully depicted.
This novel received the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1969 in the author’s native Australia, and was a runner-up for the UK’s 1968 Carnegie Medal. It is also something of a one-of for the author. From the quality of the writing I had hoped to find some similar later works, but nothing comes to light except for a few light fictions for younger children published in the early 1970s.
A snippet of biography found online explains the author’s familiarity with the setting of her story, and her obvious passion for the sharing of the brutal experiences of the rural Norwegians during the German occupation.
Australian children’s book author Margaret Balderson first made a name for herself with When Jays Fly to Bárbmo, a coming-of-age story about Ingeborg, a Norwegian girl who experiences the German invasion of Norway during World War II. The fear of invasion, and then its traumatic reality, provoke the young woman into a soul-searching quest to validate her own personal identity. This debut novel won awards across the English-speaking world.
Balderson was born and raised in Australia, but in 1963 she left for Europe. She settled for two years in Norway, where she worked in the winters and explored the countryside in the brief northern summers. In the Arctic nation, according to Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers contributor H. M. Saxby, “she experienced in a deeply personal way the innate rhythms of that land as expressed through its seasons. In particular, the Dark Time of the long Arctic winter became for her symbolic of an oppression of spirit which evaporates with the miracle of each spring.” Balderson’s experience of that cycle is reflected in Ingeborg’s life, as she passes through the darkness of living under occupation and emerges into freedom and adulthood.
A grand example of a “living book” which will be of interest to homeschool families and history teachers. I would say that it is suitable for ages 10 or so to adult. Highly recommended.
My edition is the OUP softcover, published in 1970, and it is graced by a wonderful cover illustration by one of my very favourite literary artists, Victor Ambrus. The first chapter heading is also illustrated, but sadly the rest of the volume is without decoration. I wonder if the original edition has more pictures? If so, I would love to get my hands on one…