Explore Swedish Tradition in the Coming-of-Age Novel 'Popular Music From Vittula'

Explore Swedish Tradition in the Coming-of-Age Novel 'Popular Music From Vittula'

Thursday, 24 June, 2021

The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.

This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.


Tables laden with homemade Swedish food, a traditional wedding, young love, and the irresistible tunes of the Beatles all merge in this sweet, funny, touching tale of growing up the far north of Sweden.

Meet Matti, a young boy growing up in Pajala, a town in Swedish Lapland, where the men are stone-faced, the women are silent, and — if fate smiles — the trout and grayling and salmon run strong.

In this coming-of-age story — liberally sprinkled with magical realism — Matti is our guide to the extraordinary everyday events in his hometown, near the Arctic Circle. We meet beautiful women from Finland and a terrifying witch. There’s an African priest, a Nazi, and long-lost cousins from Missouri. Plus, the Beatles and a music teacher whose hands have sprouted thumbs in the middle of his palms.

As Matti navigates his path to becoming the man he — and his very traditional father — want him to be, we get snapshots of the brutal landscape and culture of Sweden. The seemingly endless rounds of schnapps and ensuing arm-wrestling competitions (and fistfights). The feasts with reindeer stew and crispbread with salmon and sugarbuns and whipped cream with warm cloudberry jam. The sweetness of first romance and rock concerts and saunas and skiing under the stars.

Author Mikael Niemi grew up in Pajala in the 1960s, and his novel reads like a memoir filtered through the tender gaze of childhood memory. It’s crammed with tall tales and reminiscences that ring with truth. The lyrical translation from Laurie Thompson cracks and pops like a fragrant wood fire.

Poignant, funny, sometimes harsh, and always entertaining, this enchanting novel transports you to an unfamiliar place and somehow also feels like home.

The wedding took place in the middle of summer when everybody was on holiday, and the family home was flooded with relations. I was nearly thirteen and was allowed to sit at the table with the grown-ups for the first time. A solid wall of silent men, shoulder to shoulder like huge blocks of stone, and here and there their pretty wives from Finland, like flowers on a cliff face. As was normal in our family, nobody said a word. Everybody was waiting for the food. — Mikael Niemi

Popular Music from Vittula

by Mikael Niemi

This coming-of-age story (240 pages) was published in October of 2003 by Seven Stories Press. The book takes you to far-north Sweden. David read Popular Music from Vittula and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.


Popular Music from Vittula: A Novel


Top image courtesy of art of line/Shutterstock.

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