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Scholar offers insights into what makes Scandinavians tick

"Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North" (Overlook Press), by Robert Ferguson

Norway, Sweden and Denmark consistently rank at or near the top in global surveys of national contentment, prosperity and well-being. It's as if peaceful and progressive Scandinavia were a place of relentless cheeriness backed by a lilting soundtrack from Abba, the Swedish pop band of the 1970s. Even the prisons seem to encourage happiness.

The other side of the coin projects a conflicting image: a dark and cold land beset with melancholy and gloom, a thread that runs from William Shakespeare's Danish prince Hamlet to Swedish playwright August Strindberg, angst-driven Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch of "The Scream" fame and film director Ingmar Bergman. Mix in Stieg Larsson and the string of popular mysteries known as Nordic noir and there's no shortage of insanity, suicide and general malevolence.

Robert Ferguson, a British-born scholar, brings an outsider's perspective to the place he fell in love with and made his permanent home when he was in his early 30s. His previous books include a history of the Vikings and biographies of two of his fellow Norwegians: playwright Henrik Ibsen and novelist Knut Hamsun.

Ferguson's latest book is an idiosyncratic and digressive examination of Scandinavia's history and culture that combines personal recollections with sometimes rambling conversations with authors, critics and artists, often conducted in cafes over beer and aquavit. He covers roughly 1,500 years, from the Viking era to the present, and sheds light on fascinating episodes unknown to readers not steeped in Scandinavian history.

Take, for example, the story of German-born physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who served as absolute ruler of Denmark in 1770 in place of the mad king Christian VII while also becoming the lover of Christian's wife, Queen Caroline. Struensee introduced a series of reforms based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, but his luck turned sour after only two years when he was the victim of a grotesque execution in Copenhagen before a crowd of 30,000.

Compare that grisly punishment with present-day Scandinavian correctional practices that show how far the pendulum has swung the other way. Ferguson's final chapter recounts how Anders Breivik, who in 2011 murdered 77 people and tried to blow up government buildings in central Oslo, was serving his 21-year prison sentence in a three-room suite with his own workout equipment, DVD player, refrigerator, and access to television, radio and newspapers. As an example of how Sweden's liberal treatment of prisoners has gone awry, Ferguson recounts how two police officers were murdered in 1999 in the village of Malexander by inmates given extended periods of unsupervised parole to participate in a theater project designed for them as therapy.

The author also examines the roots and pervasiveness of sexual freedom in the region, particularly among Danes and Swedes. Ibsen's plays plumbed women's inner lives before the movies made worldwide stars of Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, and portrayed Scandinavian women as beautiful, erotic, emotional and enigmatic.

Ferguson analyzes key chapters in Scandinavian history, from the pre-Viking Vendel Period to the present, touching on Sweden's brief emergence in the 17th century as a great power, the flow of emigrants who brought their culture to the farmland of America's Midwest and Great Plains, and the vastly different experiences of Norway, Sweden and Denmark during World War II. Ferguson also provides an interlude in his narrative: a rewriting of Ibsen's "Ghosts," in which the playwright is confronted with proof of a son that he fathered with a woman he abandoned decades earlier.

"Scandinavians" is a delightful book chock-full of surprises, fascinating anecdotes and insights into the region's rich history and culture. If the author's digressions at times seem tiresome and clumsy, they advance his goal of painting a picture of what makes Danes, Swedes and Norwegians tick.