It is winter, north of the Arctic Circle. A few hours of pale light is all the sun has to offer before the landscape is once more wrapped in compact darkness. This is Sápmi, land of the Sami, Scandinavia’s indigenous people.
Elsa is nine years old and the daughter of Sami reindeer herders. One morning when she goes skiing alone, she witnesses a man brutally killing her reindeer calf, Nástegallu. Elsa recognizes him, he is a Swedish man from the neighboring village and she knows that he has been harassing her family for years. The man has never been caught in the act. Until now.
But Elsa is threatened into silence and refuses to tell her family and the police about what she saw. Instead, she carries her secret as a dark weight on her heart. Reindeer are the Sami’s livelihood, but the animals also serve an important spiritual role; attacking their reindeer is an attack on the culture itself. Even though she’s just a child, Elsa sees how persistent violence from neighbors and systematic indifference from authorities tear open deep wounds and causes those close to her to lose hope, and even their will to live.
Ten years pass, and Elsa is now trying to claim a role for herself in her community, where male elders expect young women to know their place. Meanwhile, the hatred and threats against the Sami keep escalating. When Elsa finds herself the target of the man who killed her reindeer calf all those years ago, something inside of her finally breaks. The guilt, fear, and anger she’s been carrying since childhood come crashing over her like an avalanche, leading Elsa to a final catastrophic confrontation.
In Stolen, award-winning writer Ann-Helén Laestadius portrays a young woman’s struggle to defend her indigenous heritage in a world where xenophobia is on the rise, climate change is threatening reindeer herding, and young people choose suicide in the face of collective desperation. But the novel also lays bare the tensions that arise when modern ideas come up against a traditional culture with deeply rooted patriarchal structures.
In September 2021, Laestadius won the Book of the Year Award for Stolen.
“Stolen has an unusual drive and it is impressive how the pace is maintained for more than 400 pages in this sharp and socially critical novel with an intensity that makes it powerful and strong. Ann-Helén Laestadius manages to keep the sense of the Sami language and their worldview alive and puts it in contact and in conflict with the times in which we live. Don’t miss out on her portrayal of the misery and demise of the emotionally disturbed neighbour, the man who hates the Sami. In fact, whatever you do, don’t miss out on this novel at all.”
Dagens Nyheter (SE)
“In Stolen, Laestadius writes with burning intensity about a community around the Arctic Circle that is rarely portrayed. About xenophobia, and conflicts between the Sami and other villagers that are inherited through generations. About reindeer who are killed and mutilated by vengeful poachers, about the passive police force and a destructive silence. With both vulnerability and immense power, Ann-Helén’ joiks a searing social critique that echoes across borders and latitudes. […] Laestadius’ own experiences and her background as a young adult writer is evident through her gripping portrayal of Elsa’s coming of age from a girl to a young woman. The ruthless polar night is intertwined with light and warm moments, creating an authentic and empathic portrait. […] Her commitment shines through and constantly urges the reader to continue reading. It may be foolhardy to name this year’s most powerful book as early as February. But that Stolen is one of the most important Swedish books of the year is indisputable.”
“Stolen is not only a fierce cry for justice, but also an empathic and beautiful story about the love of the reindeer and nature. […] The anguish and the grief is portrayed in a heartbreaking way. You are constantly apprehensive about what’s to come. Expecting the worst, and then the worst happens. What would it feel like to live like this? Some are unable to cope. […] If the best reading experiences are when you both learn something about yourself or the world – and you get a stylistically inspiring experience too – then Ann-Helén Laestadius’s novel exceeds by far.”
Norra Skåne (SE)
“One of the most talked about books this spring. […] I am impressed how as a reader I’m skilfully and effortlessly initiated into the everyday life of reindeer herders. The book is dramatic and thrilling, yet at the same time filled with grief and an underlying fury. […] It is such an important story that needs to be read no matter your gender, age, or background. Stolen is a moving, multifaceted, and important contemporary novel that highlights many serious themes and portrays a society and a situation that needs to be discussed many times over. A well-written story that leaves a lasting impression.”
P4 Västernorrland (SE)
“In a careful and at times poetic prose [Laestadius] portrays milieus, conflicts, and magic from an area that has long been underrepresented in literary fiction in Sweden. […] Laestadius portrays many difficulties and complex matters; here is something that must be told, and explained. And she truly has a beautiful language, meticulous like traditional Sami handicraft, duodji.”
“Laestadius elegantly balances around the Sami elements, highlighting the cultural characteristics of the community without making it sound exotic. To provide insight into the culture through the eyes of a child is quite simply brilliant. While nine-year-old Elsa gradually understands what the grownups around her carry and keep silent about, a reader with little insight in Sami matters learn a lot about the situation of the Sami without feeling lectured. […] The reader becomes witness to a process of change, how difficult it is to break a vicious circle in society. Ann-Helén Laestadius’s writing flows seamlessly, with a piercing psychological and keen eye for societal issues. […] I am especially happy about the elegant ending, that beautifully ties the circle together and brings hope of a brighter future, while some threads are left unresolved so the reader can keep guessing what will happen to Elsa, Mattias, Minna, and the rest.”
“Stolen is in part based on real life events and it begins in 2008 when 9-year-old Elsa bears witness to a man named Robert Isaksson killing one of her reindeer. […] The animosity between Elsa’s family and the non-Sami villagers is intimately and vividly portrayed. Above all, the novel gives beautiful insights into the life of the Sami and their struggle for justice. […] An accessible and at the same time deep, beautiful, and suspenseful tale of a part of the world many of us know very little about. It deserves a large audience.”
“The start of the novel is just as dramatically charged as that of Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. […] The first third of the book is exemplary in the portrayal of Elsa as a child, whose language and inner world Laestadius captures impeccably. There, she builds the foundation the entire novel rests upon: the persecution and harassment of the Sami, and how it has continued through generations. […] It becomes a novel about prejudice and hatred, and Robert’s acts illustrate an extreme form of racism. […] The best trick of fiction is how it can make us feel part of something, and Laestadius does just that. […] Incredibly thrilling.”
“To kill the reindeer of a nine-year-old girl is calculated cruelty. And to then threaten her life as she witnesses the crime creates a vulnerability that is difficult to grasp. But thanks to Ann-Helén Laestadius’s sparse, steady prose and tight-knit storytelling it becomes possible. You can feel Elsa’s fear in your gut, and understand why she keeps the secret of who she saw to herself into adulthood. […] Most of all, this is a novel about a young woman, Elsa, growing up. She tenaciously fights the poachers, she demands acceptance among the reindeer herders (and eases the pressure on her brother’s shoulders), she becomes a symbol for the future of her village, and she is the protagonist of a dramatic culmination of almost cinematic proportions. Stolen is both a thrilling page-turner and a story to remember for a long time to come.”
Sundsvalls Tidning (SE)
“Ann-Helén Laestadius beautifully portrays the everyday life of Sami reindeer herders. […] The reader gets to experience the freedom of nature – at times with a silence so deafening it could almost rupture eardrums. […] Stolen offers empathy, warmth, and poignant drama. It is written with a steady hand.”
Norrländska Socialdemokraten (SE)
“The heart of the story exists in the feeling of powerless fury Elsa’s father holds towards the police’s disinterested lack of investigation into the poaching of his reindeer. It is there in the bullying of the Sami school children and of the Sami workers in the nearby mine. It is reflected in the large number of young Sami who commit suicide in the area. Ann-Helén Laestadius’s writing is restrained, and at times almost journalistic, yet it has an intensity that vibrates with grief and wrath. Stolen is an important novel that provides insight into modern Sami life. […] This is the first step in a new direction for an author with a crucial message: I will be sure to follow her going forward.”
Svenska Dagbladet (SE)
“The expectations on Ann-Helén Laestadius adult debut have been huge, and how she delivers! Stolen is a powerful, tragic, accusatory, and enlightening tale about the life of the Sami. […] As a reader it is a pure privilege to experience the rich and complex history of our indigenous people. The novel vibrates with grief, indignation, despair, and love. Laestadius is also a master at portraying everyday life; you can really smell the diesel fumes from the snowmobile mixing with newly-fallen snow, damp lovikka mittens and the sharp odour of the remains of a slaughtered reindeer. […] I could go on and on about all the thoughts and emotions this book awakens in me, but I will settle for these two words: read it!”
Alingsås Tidning (SE)
“Laestadius is a skilled storyteller and through her powerful and meticulous style she gives life to the text that makes it feel cinematic. Laestadius portrays the Sami community in a way that has never been done before; she’s to the point and critical when she highlights gender issues in reindeer herding and shows how structural racial discrimination works and is alive in Sweden to this day. […] Ann-Helén Laestadius is an important writer and this is something the nomination committee of the Nordic Council Literature Prize ought to realize now.”
“The lives of reindeer herders and the vulnerability of the Sami are portrayed breathtakingly, beautifully, and movingly in Ann-Helén Laestadius’ outstanding novel Stolen. The novel is packed with love, intensity, and pain. The descriptions of snow crunching underneath skis, the creaking sound of ski poles, and how frost gets stuck in nose hair all takes me back to the winters of my childhood.”
M Magasin (SE)
“Ann-Helén Laestadius vividly portrays the situation of the Sami in an authentic way. She shows the everyday lives of the Sami: manners and customs, celebrations and everyday grind, and not least the prejudice of both Sami and other Swedes. She makes the story even richer by using North Sami words and expressions. […] A novel well worth reading that is incredibly suspenseful, almost like a suspense novel.”
“Laestadius has the skill to let the reader share the anger that Elsa feels. […] An important story about our time and Sweden today.”
Nerikes Allehanda (SE)
“Stolen provides insight into the hardships of reindeer herders in our day and age. Laestadius gives us an emotional journey through the coming of age of a young reindeer herder, formed by reindeer theft, animal cruelty, threats and hate crimes. […] Stolen is a contemporary portrayal of society. A portrayal of a parallel society that has been formed by both old and new colonialism. This novel is a must read for anyone who is unaware of the xenophobia that exists against the Sami.”
“[Ann-Helén Laestadius] skillfully makes the reader feel the wrath that Elsa feels. This is a classic underdog story that effectively exposes injustices.”
“Ann-Helén Laestadius takes the reader to a part of Sápmi where the antagonism between the Sami and the villagers escalates. Reindeer are killed and society looks away from the harassment. A seething fury propels the story forward and provides insight into a world that has been kept in the shadows for far too long but that has gotten more attention in recent years. Ann-Helén Laestadius is a crucial witness.”
Gefle Dagbladet (SE)
“Those who know a thing or two about the special relationship between reindeer herders and the reindeer, and the reindeer’s status in Sami tradition and culture realizes that the mutilation of a reindeer is also a mutilation lot the Sami. It sends a message. A sort of declaration of war. […] This is a searing portrayal of an area where the tensions between the Sami and other villagers have poisoned coexistence through generations. And they still do. This, I gather, is an utterly contemporary novel. […] Laestadius characters stand in the middle of the conflict, some adapt, some don’t, some want nothing more than to pass on the Sami heritage, while some don’t. […] Stolen is a rich novel.”