- Cabins in Modern Norwegian Literature: Negotiating Place and Identity by Ellen Rees
High mountains and snowy landscapes are closely related to the image of Norway. When people think of Norway, nature seems to be one of the first things that comes to mind. However, the Norwegian landscape also connects intimately to a specific culture, which not only includes skiing but also hiking—ascending into the fells and staying in a hytte or cabin. And it is precisely the cabin that is subject to investigation in Ellen Rees’s book Cabins in Modern Norwegian Literature: Negotiating Place and Identity.
Ellen Rees is Professor at the Center for Ibsen Studies at Oslo University, and, as a foreigner moving to Norway from the United States, she has a keen eye for specific features in the Norwegian way of life. Her focus on the cabin as a place for negotiating cultural understanding and national identity is well chosen. For an outsider, the cabin might be an easily overlooked piece of architecture, but what the cabin lacks in terms of appearance, it surely regains in intrinsic and cultural value. In Rees’s book, the cabin turns out to be a prism that reflects a broad spectrum of interesting subjects in relation to the understanding of the self, the culture, and the nation alike. One might say—with reference to the words of William Blake—that not only can a world be found in a grain of sand, but, as Rees shows, a culture can be reflected in a cabin of wood.
The book is a diachronic study of how cabins have functioned in national and personal identity construction in Norwegian literature from Norway’s liberation from Denmark in 1814 until the twenty-first century. It is structured in five chapters: (1) “The Seter as a Transgressive Allegorical Home,” (2) “Cabin, Class, and Nation,” (3) “The Hunter’s Cabin as Anti-Modern Retreat,” (4) “The Golden Age of Cabin Therapy,” and (5) “The Post-Cabin in Late Modernity.” These chapters sketch a historical development within the understanding of the cabin that leads from Romanticism to the present. At the same time, each chapter functions as a history in its own right as it sheds light on specific texts from a given period and on the ways these texts interpret the function of the cabin. Hence, the diachronic perspective is combined with a synchronic organization [End Page 413] that allows the individual reader to select chapters and historical periods of greatest interest.
The references to place theory are kept on a tight leash, and the recurring theoretical framework is Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia. The concept refers to a specific type of social space that functions on numerous registers simultaneously; a heterotopia is often a counter-site where one can gain a momentary critical distance from the everyday. As such, it certainly fits the function of the cabin. Although sticking to one main theoretical concept contributes to the unity of the book, some theoretically interested readers might long for an engagement with the by-now extensive theorization of place. Among others, Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and his cultural and gendered orientation toward place, as well as Christian Norberg-Schulz’s concept of genius loci and his architectural orientation, could have enriched Rees’s discussion of the cabin.
The first chapter in the book deals with the history of the motif of the seter (a dairy in the mountains) and the shieling as a meeting point not only between the human and the supernatural but also of an erotic kind. Typically, shielings were run by young female dairymaids who, in the summer months, took care of the animals, but shielings were also visited by bourgeois men in search of a sanctuary from modern life. Therefore, the shieling offered a space for interaction across gender and class barriers. Rees shows that the seter motif functions as an imaginative locus of national romance by focusing on the period from the 1770s to the 1850s, and reading texts by Henrik Anker Bjerregaard, Peter...