Told from the points of view of Hanna, her daughter Johanna, and granddaughter Anna, Hanna’s Daughters: A Novel (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) is a spellbinding tale that almost immediately grabs the reader.
In the beginning, we meet Johanna, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and visited by her daughter Anna, a writer who is divorced from her husband Rikard and is the mother of two daughters. We are privy to some of her struggles as an independent woman who feels as though her mother has slipped away before she has even begun to know her.
The author then shares Hanna’s journey with us, from the late 1800s in Sweden. At twelve she is raped by the son of the family she is in “service” to; pregnant and giving birth at thirteen, she is treated as a fallen woman. Then an older man, a miller, comes to the village and falls for her. He takes her son Ragnar as his own. Together they run the mill, create a home, and have several more children before Johanna is born. There are losses along the way, but Hanna feels grateful that she has been spared the fate of continued service to other families.
Her daughter Johanna is considered bright and “gifted with words,” but Hanna’s way with her daughter is to share very little of her own thoughts and feelings and to convey the need for self-effacement. Johanna, however, has her own ideas. She becomes a spirited activist in her day, and when she marries, she chooses someone she “feels something” for.
By the time Anna is born, times and expectations have changed. She is even granted higher education. These advances do not guarantee a happy life or a fulfilling marriage. There are issues and problems. She struggles. But through it all, she has her strength, her education, and a rich history behind her of strong women prevailing in the face of struggle.
These characters seemed very familiar to me. Of course I realized that they might, as my own mother and grandmother were Swedish, and my grandmother immigrated to America on her own when she was twenty. She carried with her the traditions of the “Old Country,” and her heavy accent followed her throughout her life. In some ways, I could see some of my grandmother’s history in these characters, but Hanna and her descendants stayed in Sweden and saw their country change before their eyes. The younger generations applauded the changes, but the older ones clung to their traditional ways.
I loved this story, so rich in history, but layered with feelings. I will remember it for a long time. The story, with its back and forth movement between the past and the present, felt appropriate and almost seemed like a collective venture between the women. Some of the themes of magic and mysticism felt very natural, as well. There was one part of the story I could especially relate to. In the beginning, Hanna sets up house with furniture she picks out, with one item being especially significant to her: a sofa she calls the “Varmland sofa,” derived from its origins. This sofa holds center stage, even during the times it is in the attic because it does not fit anywhere. She carries it with her throughout her life, and it seems to represent and symbolize permanence and identity for Hanna.
A book I would recommend to women who enjoy family sagas and historic backdrops: five stars.