The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow: The Forced Displacement of the Northern Sámi, by Elin Anna Labba

Review by Mack Hassler

“Therefore it was called Babel because there the  Lord confused the language of all.”
Genesis 11:9

                                                                       Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson (2024)

A monochrome book cover featuring a child on a boat with a mountain landscape in the background and the title "the rocks will echo our sorrow: the forced displacement of the northern sámi" by elin anna labba, translated by fiona graham.God is, I think, often disappointed in his chosen people as they scatter but never gives up on them.  This beautiful book is a very sad account of a politically motivated removal of an indigenous people from their homeland similar to the story of the Trail of Tears in early American history when Andrew Jackson signed off on the uprooting and movement of a number of our native American tribes Westward.  Similarly, the language and visual content reflects the Tower of Babel.  God made us do it.  But like so many of the stories in Genesis the human failings, as  much in God’s creation, produce beautiful shapes and patterns    Like botany, specifically now my Easter Lily new and perfectly shaped bells, in fact, almost an orchestra of the fluted bells on brass instruments keep opening up.  As Coleridge observes in his poem “Kubla Khan”: “a miracle of rare device” – both the natural world and this book.  Robinson argues in her new non-fiction book, The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow, that the stories in Genesis are made by human writers, including the final booming bell of the Hebrew writers in Christ himself.   For books, one language might be more efficient.  But the fall upward toward the huge trumpet bell of grace is a better gift.

The North Sami journalist Elin Anna Labba arranges a large gathering with variety and elegance in her language while the English translation by Fiona Graham (both writers have won awards for their work) adds the further “bells” needed to appreciate the Sámi original   None of these grace notes would have been needed if it had not been for Babel.   Poems and first-person Memoir prose by the Sami themselves who had to leave.  A long Glossary of the strange words in Northern Sami and an index in the English translation are included.  Most unusual is a translation of the legal and political “Convention” agreed to by the governments of Norway and Sweden that seals the sad fate of these people.  (I once saw a thick English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and felt as if I should burn it, but it was a well-made book.)  The Sami “Convention” has its own horror. Conversely, many personal black and white photos with Sami script allow the reader to see the script, so exotic to me as though looking at a stone inscription of the Latin— seeing Vergil and Cicero with no spaces between the words.

The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow is a lovely and well-made book of translation, and it includes some important history. The original Sami text by Labba gave the history, probably, to the voters and concerned people who need it   But the University of Minnesota Press has now given many more readers in this land of Babel the chance to see and to sense the fate of a sad population of people with a story so similar to the endurance we imposed on many of our Native Americans.  And this version of the story, also, includes many great photos of the reindeer who had to suffer as well. It is a very fine example of Babel at work in print.

The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow: The Forced Displacement of the Northern Sámi, by Elin Anna Labba, translated by Fiona Graham (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2024, 168 pages, 64 b&w photos, $22.95 cloth.

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