A stone fence, half-covered with climbing blackberry tendrils, separated the land belonging to Stubba Farm from the highway. Farther in, one caught a glimpse of some long red houses, built around a square yard. Straw thatched roofs covered with green moss came down over the low sides. And like a dome, the old oak trees lifted their rippling leafy crowns far above the buildings…
Suddenly something big and black and shaggy rushed past and jumped up on the car with wild howls of joy. And close behind came something white, fluttering and quacking. There was a flurry of black fur and white wings, of a red open mouth and clattering yellow beak.
Grandmother had to open the door and receive the wildly enthusiastic greetings. Then…they were introduced to the Newfoundland dog, Lubbe, and the wise old goose, Amelie, who was twelve years old, and had stopped laying eggs a long time ago, but was never going to be butchered, because she was just like a family friend.
“These are our grandchildren,” said grandmother to the animals. “Say hello now, and tell them they are welcome to Stubba Farm.”
Pelle-Göran, five years old, and Kaya, age eleven, have been brought to Stubba Farm in Skåne, at the southernmost tip of Sweden. The two children are in need of Grandmother’s special care — Kaya, because she has recently been orphaned, and Pelle-Göran because his mother has been badly injured in a bicycle accident and needs time to recuperate. The wise, loving care of Grandmother, the menagerie of animals at the farm, the delights of the countryside, and plenty of good cooking — that’s the recipe for mending their broken hearts.
Edith Unnerstad wove together sunlight and shadow in this novel in a remarkable way. Grandmother is a rock, a perfectly capable person with an understanding heart, who treats each person she encounters with respect. Life with her is largely carefree, with delicious farm fresh food, a barnful of kittens to adopt, picnics by the brook and paper boats to race there. Serenity and security settle upon the troubled children as they settle into this place.
Countering this are the unflinching portrayals of the children’s sorrows and fears. Pelle-Göran is an angry, fearful boy, having witnessed the accident that hospitalized his mother. Kaya is withdrawn and woeful. Other children emerge in the story who live in extreme poverty and are bullied in school; they are wary and withdrawn as well. These wounded children often help one another through honest conversations about their troubles. In addition,there are a number of frightening scenes beyond the initial bike accident, including a snake bite and a palpable near-drowning. Adventure, danger, sorrow, laughter, all comprise the new lives these children lead on Stubba Farm.
Unnerstad’s book won the Swedish version of the Newbery Medal, called the Nils Holgersson Plaque, in 1957. It’s full of lovely, quaint Swedish references, Swedish place-names, a running discussion of the distinction between the southern Swedes and the Stockholmers, several Swedish folk tales, and most importantly, the spettecake in the English title.
Spettekaka is a traditional cake from Skåne which is baked by pouring batter onto a cone-shaped form which is turned on a spit over the heat. Literally, it is “cake on a spit.” An intricate framework of rings and lacework forms a towering, crispy cake. It would be quite amazing to attempt!
Unnerstad was one of the most popular authors in Sweden, and she’s written quite a few other children’s titles which have been translated into English. This book won’t suit everyone, though those with a Swedish background will especially be drawn to it. I found it a surprising, satisfying mix of soothing, playful, out-of-doors delight, and thoughtful, sober, reflection on the very real sorrows children sometimes must face. If I’d had it earlier, I’d have read it aloud with my kids, ages 6 and up.
It’s out of print in the U.S. at least, but here’s an Amazon link: The Spettecake Holiday