Pent Up Grief and the Elephant in the Room

Pent Up Grief and the Elephant in the Room

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, translated by Steve Schein (Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, December 14, 2021; 268 pp.; $16.95 paperback; ISBN 9781950539383).

“Oh, well has it been said, that there is no grief
like the grief that does not speak!”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion
Chapter II: “A Colloquy,” 1839
(in The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Vol. 8, p. 77)

Karl Gustav’s older brother, Alexander, died. Why did the North Sea swallow such an excellent swimmer? That’s the question second grader Karl Gustav will ponder throughout his life in a small Denmark town. Danish author Mads Nygaard convincingly inhabits the voice of a young boy with pent-up grief in this Bildungsroman, Nygaard’s first American release.

When no one talks about an absence, a missing person becomes the elephant in the room. Karl Gustav’s parents send him to live with his grandmother in Hørmested, where he acts out his anguish while trying to understand her God. When she’s had enough of his shenanigans, she sends Karl Gustav home.

The boy returns to Hirtshals, where his father owns the Singeø, a fishing boat operated by a man named Deadeye while “Dad buzzed about, buying land and building houses.” Before he died, Alexander had worked with Dad. When Karl Gustav helps at a building site, the depth of the bond his brother and father had is hard to miss. Will Karl Gustav ever be able to step into his brother’s shoes?

Here’s Karl Gustav’s view of his mother: “Mom wasn’t supposed to earn money. She was supposed to stay home and be unemployed and clean house and make food and polish things.” Mom channels her obsession with Grace Kelly into a scrapbook, adding to Karl Gustav’s view of women’s roles—and giving him another perspective on death when the actress/princess drives off a cliff. He watches Mom grieve.

Karl Gustav and his friend Axel, an immigrant from Africa, join the soccer team. They practice with a ball dubbed Tango, and Karl Gustav unleashes his grief on both Axel and Tango. After four men knock on the door and rummage through Dad’s desk, Dad goes to jail for a year and the family moves to the town of Rakkeby near the prison. Karl Gustav befriends Tim Brink, who has a weak heart and loves to read, but Karl Gustav is not always kind to Tim. They sign up with the local soccer club, coached by Siegfried Tightwallet. Nygaard is excellent at stoking anticipation, as when the Rakkeby team has an upcoming match with Karl Gustav’s old team from Hirtshals—with Axel on it.

Meanwhile, Karl Gustav is quite a handful in the classroom. He’s often sent to the office, where Principal Ferguson tries to slap the obstinance out of Karl Gustav as the stack of bills for things he’s broken grows taller. Nygaard constructs Principal Ferguson as a Master Menace villain out of a Marvel comic, at least in Karl Gustav’s eyes.

Dad finishes his prison term, coming home by train with a full beard. Tired of being cooped up inside, he moves his chair out under the apple tree, which Nygaard ripens into a fitting metaphor: “In our county-owned yard stood an apple tree that never got anywhere. The apples wanted to become something in life, but they just stopped growing as soon as they showed up.”

A man named Valdemar appears at their front door one night wearing orange garbageman’s overalls, pointing excitedly into the dark sky at all the UFOs he sees up there. He and his wife Eleanor have just moved in next door. Mom doesn’t like Valdemar. Karl Gustav thinks: “She ought to like people who could see things in the sky other people couldn’t.” Dad, however, takes a shine to Valdemar, inviting him downstairs for a beer.

The school years proceed. Mom gets a job in Hjorving managing a clothes boutique all week. Karl Gustav wants to know: “Who’s gonna make food, then?” He and Tim toss plates in the sky past Valdemar’s window, hoping he’ll think the UFOs are back. Everyone has nicknames, such as Buffalo or Mighty Mascot, which Nygaard develops into a poignant undercurrent. Karl Gustav selects Big Ox, and instructs Tim to call him by that name. Tim talks Big Ox into cycling thirty-five miles in the rain with him to Skagen to watch a porn movie, as Nygaard advances the coming-of-age storyline. Karl Gustav, now fourteen, and Gina become lovers. He wants to tell her about Alexander.

Karl Gustav goes to work for Leftover, a junk dealer who cons people into playing walkie-talkie bingo. Leftover also develops a dog-walking scheme, which Nygaard employs to illustrate Danish discrimination toward immigrants and address the import of ideas from across the Atlantic:

“In the newspaper he’d read that Americans had invented a brand-new job. Filthy-rich dog owners who couldn’t be bothered walking their hounds could hire a complete stranger to do it for them. It was a funny idea, but not in America. America was the land of opportunity. And sooner or later, all that was invented in America came to Rakkeby.”

Once again, Karl Gustav confronts death when there’s a fire at Grandma’s that kills her. With no body for a funeral, Karl Gustav tries to imagine her end. He and Dad bike out there to clean things up. As they take load after load to the dump, Dad realizes, “This is a burial ceremony.” He processes that grief. Alexander bubbles to the surface again while Dad tells Karl Gustav a story about his brother building a playhouse.

Karl Gustav realizes Dad’s slowing down and asking people to do things for him. Dad goes to the hospital, and now it’s Karl Gustav’s turn to tell Dad a story about Alexander’s drowning. Nimbly Nygaard brings this deceptively simple tale of unspoken grief to closure, uncorking the guilt to let tears flow at long last. Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.”

Mads Nygaard
Photo: Tao Lytzen

Children react differently than adults, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. And Nygaard incorporates that idea as he skillfully portrays Karl Gustav relating to the loss of his brother as a second grader might, imagining himself with superhuman strength. When Karl Gustav kicks Tango to Axel on the beach in Denmark, he envisions the soccer ball soaring over the North Sea: “My next kick was going to Norway.” His thoughts swirl around Alexander vanishing in that spot. The memory continues bobbing up, even though Karl Gustav keeps pushing it back down. It simply won’t sink. Bereavement is funny like that. It never goes away.

His coping technique is akin to Mark Milton declaring as an Avenger in the Marvel comic book series and videogames: “I AM HYPERION—sent to Earth to become its greatest champion—more powerful than the crashing surf—able to fly, to see through walls, bend titanium with my bare hands! I am invincibleINVULNERABLE!” Karl Gustav, however, is not Mark Milton and his brother is not coming back. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described absence as “a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air” (Sonnet XCIV).

In Greek mythology, Hyperion was a Titan deity, the god of heavenly light, whose name means “watcher from above.” The sun, the moon, and the dawn all called him father—one of the four pillars that hold the heavens and the earth apart. Could Hyperion be the “god” of the novel’s cover? Even there, Nygaard speaks in Karl Gustav’s voice, linking the two together in the book’s title: “Me and God.” After all, it’s Karl Gustav’s tale, told in first person from beginning to end.

Mads Nygaard constructs a framework showcasing the arc of Karl Gustav’s development from a seven-year-old struggling to understand death all the way to manhood, still yearning to forget. Along the way, Nygaard offers perceptive insight into how children process grief and guilt, how boys learn to treat women when they grow up, and how a man builds a life in the aftermath of loss.

When Me and God Were Little is witty, inventive, quirky, and discerning. It’s quite an accomplishment.

Mads Nygaard is a Danish author from Hirtshals, Denmark. He has ten published titles—five novels and five children’s books. The Unaccompanied Minors (ten stories of refugee children and youths searching for their families), cowritten with documentary filmmaker Michael Graversen, earned the 2020 Benny Andersen Prize. The Danish Arts Council awarded Nygaard a three-year grant.

He cofounded Venligboerne (The Friendly Neighbors), a network giving refugees a fast track into their new local environments, which he details in a TEDx talk. 

Translator Steve Schein is an American consultant from San Francisco who ran the former Steve’s Books and Records in Copenhagen for many years.

Publisher: Dzanc Books

Indie nonprofit publisher Dzanc Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, got its start in 2006, transforming out-of-print modern literature into e-books at the dawn of e-readers.

Cofounder and now Publisher Emeritus Steven Gillis, an antitrust lawyer turned author, supported Dzanc with profits from his own books. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of San Francisco, and has taught at Eastern Michigan University.

Gillis served on the Board of Directors of the Ann Arbor Book Festival, and started the nonprofit writing center 826michigan, an offshoot of the flagship program 826 Valencia founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari in San Francisco. The umbrella network, 826 National, now includes centers in Brooklyn, Echo Park/Mar Vista, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and Washington, DC.

Dzanc cofounder Dan Wickett created the Emerging Writers Network (EWN) in 2000 as an email list for his own book reviews, later adding author interviews to a blog. EWN has since morphed into a community of both emerging and established writers, as well as literary readers, and has a home on Facebook. DeWitt Henry, now Prose Editor of The Woven Tale Press, profiled EWN in a 2017 column. Wickett, who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics from the University of Michigan, stepped down as Dzanc executive editor in 2013.

Guy Intoci became Dzanc editor-in-chief when Steven Gillis departed in 2016 to concentrate on his own writing. A year later, Michelle Dotter, who had begun working at Dzanc in 2014, became publisher and editor-in-chief, positions she continues to hold. She previously worked for various houses such as MP Publishing and the former MacAdam/Cage. Dotter has a degree in Creative Writing from Colorado College.

Dzanc runs the annual Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, along with the Portuguese Centro Nacional de Cultura. The Collagist is Dzanc’s bimonthly online literary magazine. The publisher established a Writer-in-Residence program in 2006, and sponsors several literary contests, such as fiction, short stories, and the new Diverse Voices Prize. Submission guidelines are on the website.

Publishers Group West distributes Dzanc books.

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