Hanna Pylväinen’s research has taken her around the world, from the suburbs of Detroit to the wildest reaches of the Arctic Circle.
A second-year fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, Pylväinen is using her time in Provincetown to complete her second novel, The End of Drum-Time. Though she was scheduled to give a reading at the work center on Wednesday, April 1, it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, like the other fellows, she remains there, sheltering in place.
The book is set in 19th-century Sápmi, the northern region comprising parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, sometimes known as Lapland, that is home to the Sámi people, who have their own languages and culture. The novel reimagines historical events involving the reformist minister Lars Levi Laestadius, who preached extensively among the indigenous Sámi reindeer herders of the region. Though largely fictionalized, the book is organized around the Kautokeino Rebellion of 1852, when a group of Sámi rose up against the local Norwegian authorities.
“The book starts with a repentance and ends with a rebellion,” Pylväinen says. “I’m investigating the beginnings of a new religion and its growing pains. In what ways did the Sámi people use this new form of Christianity to band together?”
Pylväinen’s second book feels in many ways like a direct continuation of her first novel, We Sinners, which was published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2012. Drawn from Pylväinen’s own experience, We Sinners explores the stories of a contemporary Midwestern family of Finnish descent, the Rovaniemis. They belong to a strict religious sect that evolved from Laestadius’s original movement — no alcohol, no movies, but much grace and belonging. Though the main concerns of We Sinners are how to live within such a tight-knit community — and how to leave it — the book’s beautiful final chapter departs from the Rovaniemis’ present and imagines a young woman at the very beginning of Laestadianism, thousands of miles away and more than a century earlier.
“In doing research for the first book, I knew almost straightaway that there was so much more material that I had to write another book about it,” Pylväinen says. “I was looking into the fundamentalism I’d grown up in, but I had no idea what I was getting into, or the number of obscure books I was about to own, or how much I’d come to love traditional Sámi music.”
She may not have realized how much she was about to travel, either, or how tightly her life would become tied to the northern Sápmi region. For the past decade, about once a year, Pylväinen has traveled to Sápmi on research grants, staying with a family of reindeer herders who have become close friends. Spending time in this remote place and following the dictates of nature and the movements of the herds has offered her new insights into her own history, as well as the writing of her books.
“I’d been told growing up that the religion I was raised in was Finnish,” she says. “But until I started to really look into it, I didn’t realize how much of this religion’s early days were with the Sámi. The preacher who started it himself was half Sámi. I’m thinking about the role that the Sámi played in creating a new kind of Christianity, and what they managed to preserve via the Christianity of their church.”
Pylväinen says that while the Sámi way of life among the herds was in many ways new to her, there was something deeply recognizable in it from her own past. “The way they spoke was so reminiscent of the religion I grew up in, it kind of freaked me out at first,” she says. “There’s a real emphasis on the importance of what is felt. Intuition is knowledge, emotion is knowledge, nature is knowledge. It was something ineffable, but something essentially Sámi. It managed to survive, cross an ocean, and make it to the Detroit suburbs.”
For Sámi reindeer herders, today as in the 19th century, nature plays a crucial role in culture and survival. The End of Drum-Time opens with an earthquake, and throughout the book, natural events continue to shape the lives of the characters. From the mystical beauty of the northern lights to the brutal realities of animal husbandry, the natural world played a vital role in helping Pylväinen think about the novel and its structure.
“In writing my first book,” she says, “I thought plot had to come from character — it had to be ingrained in who the character was. In this novel, I’m telling myself plot comes from reindeer. The physical world has to be what moves it. So much of what I think about in Sápmi and when I’m working on the novel is our desire to control and to imagine we have control over nature. We imagine if we do x, y, or z we’ll get the right results. But the lesson in Sápmi is always that we don’t have control.”
Pylväinen says Provincetown has been an ideal setting to work on her book. “Here in P’town, you’re closer to an extreme form of nature,” she says. “That helps me with my novel, because every time I forget about the role of nature, my novel suffers. I have to keep bringing it back.”