‘The Historians’ by Cecilia Ekbäck: A history of racial prejudice in a WWII thriller

“The Historians” by Cecilia Ekbäck presents readers with a historical thriller that also encompasses the history of racial prejudice and eugenics that permeated Scandinavia even before Hitler’s rise to power. The story begins in April, 1943, when Laura Dahlgren receives a phone call that her best friend from college has disappeared. Before the actual beginning of the story, Ekbäck provides short passages about events from January, February, and March of that year. Two of those are about mysterious events that seem unrelated to the main story, but give a hint of what is to come.

Laura Dahlgren has had a sheltered upbringing. Her father is a wealthy and influential banker, and she now works for the Swedish government as a negotiator with the Germans. Sweden is neutral in the war, but other Scandinavian countries are not. She has few friends, and her best friends from college no longer speak to each other because of a disagreement that is referenced vaguely. Even her best friend Britta seems distant, and when they meet at Britta’s request, Britta seems uncomfortable and frightened. Shortly after that, Laura learns that Britta has disappeared. When she and one of Britta’s friends — a Sami, the indigenous people in Scandinavia — go to look for her, they find her tortured and murdered body. Neither has any idea why she was murdered.

Laura doesn’t let her friend’s murder be forgotten. When someone bombs her apartment, it becomes personal. She is determined to find out what happened to Britta. We meet Jens Rengell, the secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Sweden. Ekbäck tells the story from each character’s point of view, so we understand what they are thinking and feeling as the plot progresses. The third “character” is Blackäsen Mountain, the scene where much of the story takes place. On that mountain, iron is mined for Germany’s war effort. A train passes through there and mysterious things happen on a part of the mountain where no one is permitted to go.

Even the director of the mine, Director Sandler, has been told, or rather threatened, to keep away from that part of the mine and not to ask questions. He is told that the orders are from the highest authorities. We also meet Taneli, whose sister Javanna has disappeared. He is convinced she is alive and is determined to find her. The Sami live in the north of Sweden and are treated as second class citizens. Britta’s father is the foreman at the mines, and at first he seems a hard, unlikable man.

While the start of the novel requires a lot of concentration because of all the different characters and story lines, it’s worth sticking it out. By the middle of the novel, I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down. It’s filled with betrayal, murder, mystery, and the worst of human nature. At times, it’s absolutely horrifying. But at the end, when all the twists and turns have been unraveled, we also get to experience the best that humans have to offer. We see it in Laura and Jens and their quest to right the wrongs that they see happening at the highest levels. We also see it in the workers at the mine, who are uneducated and rough men, but who are good men and who do the right thing when they are called upon.

The author, who was born in Sweden, points out in the Author’s Note and Historical Background some unsettling facts about Sweden, which I had heretofore seen as an idyllic place with universal health care and some of the happiest people on earth. I had not realized that it was at the insistence of Sweden and Switzerland, neutral counties, that the passports of Jewish people were stamped with a red “J” so that they could be identified and refused entry at the borders of those countries. And just as in America we tried to suppress the culture of the indigenous people here, so did the Swedish try to suppress the Sami culture. Their children were purposely taught poorly and not taught in Swedish schools. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that “Forced sterilization in Sweden took place between 1934 and 2013.” It didn’t stop until eight years ago.

The book is a thriller, and the action is nonstop. While it does take a while to really “know” the different characters, this is a book that is not only enjoyable, but satisfying. The ending isn’t a typical “and they all lived happily ever after,” but rather one that is more like the world we live in. We know that evil never really goes away, and we must constantly be on the lookout for it — as we in America have learned the hard way.

Please note: This review is based on the final, trade paperback novel provided by Harper Perennial, the publisher, for review purposes.