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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
by Mikael Engstrom
Age Range: 12+
Twelve-year-old Mik is something of a rebel and has been skating on thin ice for most of his young life. His mother is dead and his father is an alcoholic. He idolises his older brother Tony, but he is not always at home. When Mik’s father is taken to hospital after a severe bout of drinking and Tony has mysteriously disappeared, Mik finds he is all alone at home. Social Services have to find him somewhere else to live temporarily and Mik is sent to stay with his father’s sister Aunt Lena in a remote part of Northern Sweden.
Mik finds himself in a small snowy village with a frozen lake; his aunt burns books to keep the house warm, the school has only one class of all different ages of children and there are very few daylight hours during the winter months. Despite this Mik thrives: he makes friends with a girl called Pi, is taught to fish by his neighbour and finally feels he has found safety, security and a sense of belonging in the small village community living with his aunt.
However, this is rudely interrupted when he is placed with a foster family who treat him unkindly. Suddenly Mik’s life becomes a living nightmare, but he is nothing if not determined. Through forests, along train lines, over rapids and waterfalls and finally, literally standing on the edge, Mik will go to any lengths to stay in the one place he feels is now home.
This is an incredibly powerful book from Swedish author Mikael Engström. His empathy with the protagonist is contrasted sharply with his portrayal of Social Services who are cast in a much less favourable light as their inability to pick up on the cruelty of the foster family is brought into question.
The atmosphere is temporarily lightened by some of the other characters, such as the delightfully eccentric elderly twin brothers Bengt and Bertil, who have not spoken to each other for years, warm-hearted Aunt Lena and Mik’s friends Pi, Oskar and Filip.
The descriptive prose, translated by Susan Beard, of bleak wintry landscapes and dark, eerie forests often mirror the moral wilderness that Mik experiences. Mik makes his way precariously across both the literal and metaphorical patches of 'thin ice' in his desperate search to belong.