Monday, December 25, 2017

Barbara Sjoholm's "Black Fox"

Barbara Sjoholm is a writer of memoir, mysteries, fiction, and travel books, and an editor of anthologies and nonfiction.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The accounts Emilie later gave of keeping house for Turi seem to have been concocted after the fact for her foreword to Muitalus sámiid birra, and the explanation was repeated in reviews and interviews she gave around the book’s publication, and even as late as 1940. In these accounts it is often Emilie who came to live in Turi’s cabin: “I, who have had the pleasure of arranging and translating this work, lived with Johan Turi during the months he was engaged on it. An author should not be disturbed by household cares such as cooking, etc., so a woman’s help was essential.” But in letters to her family in the autumn of 1908 it seems fairly clear that Emilie was the primary occupant of the cabin and its hostess. . .It was Turi who provided most of their meals from fishing and hunting and Turi who cooked these meals (confirmed by a late interview Emilie gave in her eighties and that appeared in a Swedish newspaper with the heading: “Turi Wrote––and Did the Cooking.”) Nevertheless the smoke screen seems to have worked effectively at the time, so much so that for decades, up until recent times, Emilie was regularly described as Turi’s domestic and literary assistant: “The fate of Johan Turi... fulfilled the old rule: a poor, talented storyteller creates immortal literature by freeing himself from the demands of daily chores. That is what happened when Hjalmar Lundbolm, the director of the Kiruna mine, became the writer’s patron and the Dane Emilie Demant began working as his secretary and housekeeper.”

Emilie’s and Turi’s correspondence, however, provides hints of a deeper level of feeling between them, however masked in Emilie’s correspondence to her family. In a letter written at the end of August, Emilie quotes Turi as telling her, “I can’t seem to catch the Danish silver fox,” which she rather disingenuously describes as “proof of the Lapps’ image-rich language.” In reality, the reference to Emilie as a fox that was hard to capture was part of Turi’s ongoing but unsuccessful courtship. In the next few years he would often refer to Emilie as the Black Fox that the Old Wolf could not seem to catch. The black or silver fox is a melanotic variant of the red fox of northern Europe; Turi may have been referring to the color of Emilie’s hair or her quickness or simply her elusiveness.
One lamp-lit day in December, 2001, up in the far northern city of Alta in Norway, a Norwegian writer I know told me a story. In 1904 a Danish woman artist, Emilie Demant Hatt, had visited Lapland and encountered a Sami wolf-hunter, Johan Turi on a train. Later she inspired and helped this man write a book—Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sami), published in a Danish-Sami edition in 1910 and now considered the first classic of Sami literature. Demant Hatt also wrote her own travel narrative, With the Lapps in the High Mountains (1913).

I immediately had questions, but for a long time, few answers. Who was this artist and ethnographer, Emilie Demant Hatt? How did she end up in Lapland, or Sápmi, as the region is now called? What kind of artist was she? Why was so little known about her, except that she edited and translated Johan Turi’s book? And what was her relationship with Johan Turi?

It took over a dozen years for me first to translate With the Lapps into English and do all the required archival research in Scandinavia for my recent biography of Emilie Demant Hatt, Black Fox. Along the way I published a travelogue of my own, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, and a pair of novels about Demant Hatt’s once-secret adolescent romantic relationship with Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s best-known composer. I learned a great deal about Sami history and culture in the twentieth century and about Demant Hatt’s unique place in anthropology and folklore, as a participant observer in the tents of many nomadic Sami families in northern Sweden. Her letters revealed the many conflicts and warm feelings between her and Johan Turi, and debunked many of the myths that had grown up around their working and personal relationship.

To my surprise, page 99 of the published biography goes right to the heart of the some stories about them, dating from the late summer of 1908 when they worked together on his manuscript at Lake Torneträsk in Sweden; the page also explores why Turi called her “Black Fox.”
Learn more about Black Fox at the Emilie Demant Hatt website.

--Marshal Zeringue