Literary Lessons from My Friend Astrid

Instead of waiting for the high school bus to drive us home, Astrid and I preferred to walk two miles to her house, which culminated in a 10-min steep climb. But once we were there, we had the place to ourselves. Totally worth the trek!

Their house was perched on a cliff with a view of a coulee that fed into the Mississippi River Valley. It was the early 1970s when the Boomers were straining the capacity of schools. So, Astrid and were free to leave campus at 1:00. Rather than sit around the cafeteria, waiting for the bus to come at 3:00, we bolted to her house where we had a few hours of solitude before her family came home.

Breathless from our uphill climb, Astrid quickly settled us into their empty home. She started the kettle for coffee and loaded her older brothers’ LPs into the stereo. The living room exploded with Bob Dylan … James Taylor … Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young … Eric Clapton. She served instant coffee with heaping teaspoons of CoffeeMate. I’d never drank coffee before—it was a grown-up beverage in my home. I’d also never heard this type of music before. We danced around spaces where her parents didn’t allow such wild behavior.

We played and replayed Joni Mitchell’s songs. Then we discussed Joni’s messages and listened to her lyrics over again to absorb the emotions and nuances. I took our Joni Mitchel obsession home—my family tired of me over-playing “Ladies of the Canyon.”

Astrid and I shared a cigarette or two—just because? And when we got older—a joint. But the foundation of our relationship was processing what was going on in our lives in a safe and supportive way … during a pivotal life stage.

When Astrid’s family members came home, we retreated to her bedroom and talked about the books we were reading. We dissected Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca in microscopic detail. Astrid loved the vivid description of the setting in the book’s opening. I was more enchanted with the mystery. We did the same with the Bronte novels and other romantic dramas. We also explored contemporary authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell, who offered social commentary through fiction. And we explored science fiction writers including our favorite, Isaac Asimov.

Sometimes, we took hikes on the trails outside her house. We climbed to summits on the bluffs. We continued our literary conversations as we gazed to the horizon. But we also shared teenage girls’ stuff: our bodies changing, boys, feelings, and all the confusing things that go on at that age.

Astrid’s parents had immigrated from Norway after WWII. They spoke Norwegian in their home. Although my parents descended from Norway and Sweden, they had abandoned their Scandinavian heritage and melted into homogeneous American culture.

When her mother came home stressed from her workday, Astrid would start a Norwegian conversation that sounded like she was trying to persuade her mom to let me eat dinner with them. Observing their foreign discourse, I heard words like “Quiche Lorraine” and a pleading tone in Astrid’s voice. I gathered her mom was reluctant to indulge Astrid’s requests.

Rarely, after a lot of Norwegian banter that I didn’t understand, Astrid would emerge with a triumphant smile: I could stay, and we’d be having Quiche Lorraine! More often, I went home at dinnertime. When I had dinner with their family, they spoke English as a courtesy to me.

Years later, after I learned how to make quiche and became a working mom myself, I understood why Astrid’s mom didn’t have the energy (or ingredients) to conjure that complicated recipe… and spontaneously host her daughter’s friend. And that my presence deprived her mom of a Norwegian sanctuary at the end of her workday.

Unexpectedly, Astrid moved to Norway the summer before our senior year of high school. Her sudden departure scrambled my world … and hers even more. This event triggered a separation that caused us to lose contact for 20 years. Although she came back to the US after completing high school in Norway and pursuing a career in library science, our paths didn’t cross.

We reconnected in our mid-40s, with young kids about the same age. Astrid and I picked up where we left off. We discussed books; listened to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell; processed the challenges of raising children, parenting, and life. We always did a good job of “unpacking the shit.”

Sadly, Astrid passed in 2010 after a difficult struggle with cancer. I still miss her. In our last conversation, I shared that I was building my resiliency to cope with a difficult situation by spending a lot of time cross-country skiing. She said, “Good for you, Jean. Go skiing for both of us.” Every time I swish around on my skis, she’s with me. And also, when I listen to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

What Would Astrid Think?

Astrid’s picture from one of our cross-country skiing adventures sits high up on my bookshelf—sort of a North Star position. One evening in January, I looked up at her and a minute later, I was drafting the story about our high school relationship. Our story connected me to the books I’ve been reading the last few months.

Of course I’ll never know, but I’m quite sure she’d approve of my Nordic Noir binge reading. I also think she’d offer intriguing points of view about the books. Three authors offer a chance for me to indulge in imaginary conversations with Astrid. They all deliver brilliant mysteries brought to life through exotic scenery and compelling characters. Prolific writers, they produced crime novel series, as well as other works.

Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Vellum Series

I wonder how the two of us would have processed the tales of Varg Vellum, a sad sap but charming and well-intended private investigator who fights crime in Bergen, Norway? Because of my trip to Bergen, I can conjure images of where the action takes place. As the various mysteries unfold, I find myself in imaginary conversations with Astrid, discussing plots, characters, and the writing.

Varg’s education and experience as a social worker with abused youth puts him in the middle of high-intensity drama. Plus, the unstable lifestyle of a private investigator (and his penchant to fight his demons with alcohol) makes him a volatile—sometimes dangerous—partner for his loved ones. A complex character to unpack, he’d be good convo for a few coffee chats. Always moved by vivid language, Astrid would have appreciated that Staalesen’s books deliver on that. More than anything, it would be fun to dissect a few questions with Astrid: Is he a sad sap or heroic character? How does his heroism turn him into a victim? Did he choose this work because he’s a tortured soul or does he become a tortured soul because of the work?

Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole Series

I almost gave up during the first two books, where Norwegian detective, Harry Hole, solves international crimes in Australia and Thailand. But a friend urged me to read on. Other books in the series are set in Oslo with excursions to Bergen and other Norwegian locales. Again, my travels through Norway help me visualize the settings.

Varg Vellum and Harry Hole have a lot in common. They share alcoholism, addiction to their work, and fraught relationships with loved ones. Plus, they’ve experienced personal tragedies and losses that haunt and cripple them. I haven’t completed the Harry Hole series (on Book 8) but think that Harry has a darker soul than Varg. Both are brilliant investigators and lone wolves (“varg” means “wolf” in Norwegian). Decent men who take too many risks involving the scum of the earth make them hard for their loved ones to hold close. So, they are lonely.

How might Astrid have brought to life the scenery in even more vivid detail? And how would we have explored the human and geopolitical questions Nesbo poses?

Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander Series

Astrid and I would have needed many coffee chats to digest the works of Swedish crime novelist, Henning Mankell. He used his pen to humanize socially liberal commentary on Swedish and global politics. Through his Kurt Wallander series, Mankell forces us to confront challenging global issues like human-, arms-, and drug-trafficking that infiltrates remote areas of the globe. His humanitarian work in Africa for free democratic societies threads through his novels. Plus, he explores the tensions that emerge from global migration as new religions and cultures integrate into Nordic societies.

Mankell’s Wallander books were written 20 years after Astrid and I smoked cigarettes, drank instant coffee, and tried to solve the world’s problems. But I suspect that we would have extracted some literary and life lessons from his work—if we’d the chance!

 

My librarian friend lives on in the books, hopes, and dreams that we shared, as well as how she inspired me to read and process the world through literature and the words of Bob Dylan;

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong.
And may you stay forever young.

Hugs, my friend!

4 Comments

  1. Georgia K Nichols on March 14, 2024 at 4:44 pm

    Beautiful story ! Wonderful how close relationships and books live on forever !

  2. Jean Storlie on March 12, 2024 at 9:20 am

    Thanks Mary and Peter. I’m glad that you like my story about Astrid and our reading adventures. And Peter, I’m glad you urged me to keep going with Harry Hole, especially the Snowman.

  3. Mary Evenson on March 12, 2024 at 8:55 am

    What a wonderful friendship to have had Jean and a hard one to lose. I believe that those we have loved who have passed live on when we remember them. So sorry for your loss.

  4. Peter Seymour on March 12, 2024 at 6:48 am

    Bravo. Astrid now lives on thanks to you. I have also added a new “Nordic Noir” detective to pursue in the form of Mr. Varg.

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