When light shines on something, it casts a shadow. This novel is about the shadow cast on a family and a country when light shines on its past. Lena Larsson, a young American student and aspiring writer, at the Sorbonne in Paris, was raised by her domineering Swedish Grandmother, Helga, and her stoic seamstress mother, Sofia, in the Pacific Northwest coastal town of Astoria, Oregon, a town inhabited by many Scandinavian immigrants. As a child, Lena is shy and withdrawn, and spends much of her time with her writing journal , her sketch book and her cat at her side while following orders from her dominant grandmother. She passes many tormented nights awakened by her grandmother’s screams in her sleep.
Though a good student, once in Paris on a scholarship, Lena is troubled by unrelenting insomnia which interferes with her studies and her first romance with Joseph, a Parisian artist who she finds compellingly attractive. When her mother Sofia’s sudden illness forces Lena to return to Astoria, she is urged by her dying mother to go to Sweden to try to uncover what could have caused Helga’s nocturnal outcries and the sad ending to her life. Helga’s photo album of some significantly missing photos, her reluctance to tell much about a visit she made to her family farm in southern Sweden in the summer of 1939, just before Hitler invaded Poland, give Lena some clues. She and her mother believe the answers to Grandmother’s outcries could be related to an occurrence during that visit and the mysterious loss of her beloved Polish Jewish sister-in-law, the wife of her favorite brother, Johann.
Part III of the novel, follows Lena in her “detective work” as she tries to unravel the mystery of her Grandmother’s past. Her story, one of inter-generational trauma, has been carefully researched and lays bare some lesser known details about Sweden’s role in World War II and the tragic effects of Nazism on one fictional Swedish family for three generations. Davidson’s story also brings mid-twentieth century Astoria and Paris alive.