Swift and Strange: Harold R. Johnson’s The Björkan Sagas

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Harold R. Johnson is a difficult writer to classify and, therefore, an interesting writer to read. On his Twitter bio, he labels himself “trapper, fisherman, writer, father, grandfather, husband, lawyer, dog musher, farrier, lumberjack, prospector, Uncle, friend, heavy equipment operator, paddler.” The books he’s written are just as varied and unpredictable. His polemic Firewater draws from his experience as a Canadian Crown Prosecutor to address the scourge of alcoholism, while Cry Wolf matches Indigenous traditions with forensic science in an investigation of a fatal wolf attack in Saskatchewan. His novel The Cast Stone has the United States conquering Canada and facing resistance, while his later Corvus is a dystopian novel set in a future Canada struggling to accommodate catastrophic climate change.

Some themes and motifs recur—the meeting of First Nations and European cultures, the resilience of Cree culture, stewardship of and care for the environment—how these themes will materialize from one book to the next is impossible to predict. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Johnson has now written a fantasy novel of sorts.

In the frame story, which occupies the first twenty-odd and the last eight pages of The Björkan Sagas, author/narrator Harold describes the last days of his neighbor Joe. Harold and his wife Joan live an isolated life on a Canadian lake; solar power provides charges for their electronic devices, oil fuels their motorboat, and they have a car parked a few miles away, but they don’t have running water and the nearest town is fifty long miles distant. Joe, who proves to be just over a hundred years old, lives an even more spartan life: The Swedish immigrant ex-trapper never uses anything with an internal combustion engine, and cut his own wood for heating well into his final years. When Harold paddles his canoe to Joe’s cabin and finds his taciturn neighbor near death, he is entrusted with a cardboard briefcase. After Joe’s peaceful death, Harold opens the case and discovers the handwritten Björkan Sagas, three tales written in an obscure Swedish dialect. Their translation comprises the remainder of the novel. 

Harold Johnson’s father was a Swedish immigrant, while his mother was a member of the Cree Nation. The three sagas that Harold-the-narrator discovers reflects both of the cultures inherited by Harold Johnson, the real-world author. The first two sagas are narrated by Juha, a member of the Björkan people on an unnamed planet. The Björkans live in five narrow river-carved valleys dominated by the vast Björka trees, which provide food, shelter, and the people’s name. The climate and the environment of the Björkan people is essentially Scandinavian, while their culture and folklore is reminiscent of that of the Cree and other First Nations. 

In the first story, the storyteller Juha is summoned by the Winter Chief, the woman who rules the Björkans during the first half of the year. (A man rules during the summer, but so egalitarian is Björkan society that men chosen must be dragged quicking, screaming, punching, and biting to their throne — no one wants to rule.) Juha and his two companions set out from their valley in search of the story trader, Anthony de Marchand, who normally visits the Björkans to trade valuables for stories. This year, he has not arrived. The three travelers are disgusted to see the filthy towns that other people live in, and are distressed to see that other people cut down trees rather than relying on the land’s bounty. When at last they find Anthony, they are dragooned by aliens with guns who kidnap them and take them onto a garden-like spaceship made of “living water” that the first set of aliens have hijacked from another set of benign but mostly invisible aliens. The first set of aliens prove to be traumatized and violent American veterans of World War II who have hijacked the thought-propelled alien ship to search for the Christian Heaven. The Björkans eventually resolve the problem by summoning up an image of God’s chariot as described in Ezekiel, Chapter 10. The Heaven-seeking hijackers exit in the chariot of fire. After this, Juha makes love with Lilly, one of the surviving aliens; their coupling produces enough energy to instantly fling him back across the light years to his home planet.

The second saga concerns Juha’s defense of his home valley against gun-bearing invaders led by Anthony de Marchand; despite the Björkans’ pseudo-magic abilities things go from bad to worse when the invaders begin cutting down the Björka trees, thereby releasing the dragons that slumber within. In the third saga, Juha’s invisible alien lover Lilly flies her thought-powered spaceship to Juha’s planet to aid the Björkans; along the way she picks up a group of naked winged valkyries with extensive dragonslaying experience. Through cunning stratagems and beast-soothing song, the dragons are eventually transformed into trees again, the invaders are redeemed, and peace returns to the valley of the Björkans. 

All this happens in two hundred pages, and the events seem nearly as arbitrary in the book as they are in my summary. Anyone seeking worldbuilding or internal consistency ought look elsewhere. Topics that seem interesting, like the Björkans’ simultaneously essentialist and egalitarian view of gender, are introduced and then glossed over. In the Acknowledgments to the novel, Johnson writes that The Björkan Sagas “started as a story I told myself each night before I went to sleep. I put the story into the dream world and this is what I found in the morning.” For better and for worse, this novel reads like a dream. For better: It’s suggestive, stirring, and to the point. For worse: It never coheres and produces no real characters; because anything can happen, it sometimes seems that nothing matters. 

Did I absolutely love The Björkan Sagas? I did not. The swift pace and dream logic that make it so readable and so memorable may, in the end, deprive it of some emotional charge. With the rules and stakes and worlds of Joe’s sagas shifting as they do, it’s hard to perceive the characters as anything more than figments from a dream or figures drawn to illustrate a point. And yet I will admit that I’ve never read anything quite like this book; that confidence and originality deserve some praise.

The Björkan Sagas is available from House of Anansi Press.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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