There is more to Norway than meets the eye, and the people of this Scandinavian nation are notorious for their profound depth. While guidebooks can orient you with background on your selected points of interest, nothing beats Norwegian literature to get a sense of the country's people and culture. The books below range from a biography of a national hero to contemplative fiction, page-turning mystery, and groundbreaking theater. These dynamic selections are inspiring, evocative, and capture the spirit of Norway itself.
#1 Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)
Grab some tissues and dive into this gorgeously introspective narrative about life and loss. The story of Per Petterson’s acclaimed novel seamlessly interweaves the past with the present. Trond, a 67-year-old man, retreats to the isolated and wooded north of Norway and reflects upon his life, focusing on a life-changing summer he had when he was 15.
We learn that the summer of 1948 was revelatory for Trond, who spent the season sharing a cabin with his father. He forms a deep friendship with an older boy named Jon, and the two embark on the kind of reckless adventure that defines adolescence. One day Jon suggests that they steal some horses from a nearby farm, but as the day unfolds, Jon breaks down with grief. What follows is a gently unfolding narrative that delves into unsaid truths about how their two families connect. Ultimately we see all the pieces fall into place in this story which meticulously balances life’s melancholy with its joys, heroism, and tragedies.
Like the landscape in which the novel is set, Petterson’s approach is quiet—his is a deep tale told slowly and deliberately. If you’re looking to connect with the quiet of the land when you head to Norway, head to Børgefjell National Park, which borders Sweden. The remote Børgefjell offers dramatic and varied vistas where Sámi reindeer have historically grazed for centuries. The expansive park is home to snowy owls, wolverines, Arctic foxes, and lynx. There is fantastic trekking to be had and savvy foragers can find porcini and chanterelle mushrooms while anglers can catch Arctic char in the chains of stunning glacial lakes.
#2 Nansen: The Explorer as Hero (Roland Huntford)
Prepare for adventure with this thrilling biography of Fridtjof Nansen, renaissance man and father of modern polar exploration. Nansen was a true polymath: artist, historian, humanitarian, intrepid skier, oceanographer, ice skater, neurological researcher, and diplomat.
This biography, like Nansen’s life, is nonstop: our hero jumps from incredible physical feats to groundbreaking research. He was the first man to cross the interior of Greenland, doing so on skis, and after making history with his expedition of the North Pole in the late 19th Century, he innovated the equipment and techniques necessary for Arctic campaigns. Nansen rounded out his legacy in international relations with Bolshevik revolutionaries, made contributions to the Versailles Peace Conference, and in the League of Nations, he committed himself to helping prisoners of war and refugees. His work ultimately earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
Visiting Oslo? Stop by the Nobel Peace Center, located in the former Vestbanen railway station. The Center uses cutting-edge interactive technology and a variety of exhibits to stimulate discussion on the ideology behind the Peace Prize, creatively examining issues like war, peace, and conflict resolution. Visitors under 16 enjoy free admission and age-appropriate programming. If you’re in Oslo in the winter, top off your visit with some fantastic Nordic skiing as you channel Nansen. Oslomarka, minutes away from the city, offers miles of gorgeous wooded trails.
Or if you’re feeling particularly intrepid, head up north for a once in a lifetime trip to ski your way across Lapland. You can access Svalbard, the archipelago that lies between the North Pole and Norway’s mainland, from May through September, the ideal window in which to see epic Arctic wildlife like wild reindeer and polar bears. (And if ski touring is your thing, here are some additional ideas for enjoying winter in Norway.)
#3 A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen)
Set in the late 19th century, Ibsen’s masterpiece broke barriers, crafting a controversial narrative about a woman seeking independence in her deeply patriarchal society.
A Doll’s House revolves around Nora, a woman who seems like a happy wife and mother, but who is hiding a secret from her husband Torvald — years earlier, he suffered from intense overwork and doctors prescribed time in warmer weather; Nora had to illegally borrow money to fund the time off. Tensions continue to build as Nora plunges into the depths of her guilt. The third act is truly groundbreaking as the couple debates marital roles, duties, and love, and Nora considers doing the unthinkable: making her way alone in the world without a man or family.
A Doll’s House is an outstanding example of the Norwegian legacy of progressivism; Ibsen faced enormous backlash for daring to examine society’s inequalities and give voice to the voiceless. The play not only brings women’s rights to the forefront but inspires anyone to discover and fight for their true selves.
Literary and theater fans visiting Oslo can delve further into Ibsen’s work at the Ibsen Centre Library at the University of Oslo, whose collections include Ibsen’s original works in Norwegian and in a number of international translations, as well as articles, journals and books about the playwright's life, legacy, and contributions. In June, Oslo is also home to the Heddadagene Theatre Festival, in which nearly 30 national institutions produce Norwegian productions on stages all around the capital.
#4 The Snowman (Jo Nesbø)
Although The Snowman is the seventh installment of the Harry Hole detective series, you can enjoy this bestseller without any prior knowledge of the main character (or the 2017 American film adaptation). Nesbø is a powerhouse Norwegian author, famous for captivating murder mysteries like this gem.
Detective Harry Hole crisscrosses Norway as he investigates a series of cold cases united by two facts: the victims were all married mothers, and snowmen were present at the scenes of every crime. This page-turner delivers everything you want in the classic detective whodunit: bizarre crimes, red herrings, twists and turns, suspicious snowmen, and a fun thrill ride.
If you’re traveling from Oslo to Bergen like Detective Hole does in the novel, take in Bergen's charming sights and youthful energy. After you wander around the famed wooden waterfront houses downtown, leave time to explore this historic, walkable, lively city. Beyond museums and the gorgeous university, indulge in fantastic dining and nightlife options, and tackle any of the seven hills and seven fjords around the city, which offer great hiking trails and seafaring adventures. Here's a great itinerary for a fun day in Bergen (and here's one for Oslo, too).
#5 The Birds (Tarjei Vesaas)
Published in 1957, The Birds is a moving and introspective look into the rich inner world of Mattis, a mentally disabled man who lacks the language to express what he thinks and feels. Mattis lives in the forested hinterland with his aging sister and caretaker, Hege, who is going grey with regret for the life she hasn’t been able to truly experience after years of putting her brother first.
Sensitive Mattis finds serenity in the woods but decides to work as the lake’s ferryman. In his sojourns across the water, he only shepherds one lone traveler, Jørgen, a lumberjack who soon falls in love with Hege. Mattis struggles to deal with the shift in his home life, terrified that his sister and guardian will abandon him.
Vesaas’s skills shine in his delicate crafting of a nuanced portrait of internal versus external life. What characters struggle to express verbally manifests as reflections in the primordial nature around them. The Birds offers an allegorical examination of who we are and how we connect to those closest to us.
If you’re looking for natural serenity further afield, the village of Hemsedal offers fantastic hiking and skiing in the Scandinavian Mountains. After catching abundant trout in the Hemsila River, which cuts through the village, explore picturesque waterfalls in Hydnefossen and Rjukandefossen. For an even quieter option accessible from Oslo, head to Norway’s largest lake: Mjøsa. When the weather’s warm, enjoy great lakeside camping, cycling, and kayaking. The lake’s waters boast 20 different species of fish, including huge Mjøsa trout, perch, burbot, and pike. Mjøsa is even open for ice-fishing in the winter, making this a great outdoorsy destination year round.