A young girl dreams of Siberia and of skies that are "cold and clear."
Ask most children to pick a vacation spot, and answers will probably range from “the beach” to “Disney World.” Budding sophisticates might come up with France or Italy. The place the young narrator of Per Petterson’s newly released novel longs to visit: Siberia.
Her beloved older brother, Jesper, not surprisingly, wants heat and sunshine.
“Jesper was heading for Morocco. That would be too hot for me. I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances,” she remembers.
The narrator of To Siberia also thinks the timber houses there will be somehow warmer than the damp brick of her own town in northern Denmark. As for the Gulag? She dismisses that as “Nazi propaganda.”
Dreams of Siberia, school, and Jesper get the narrator through a childhood that has the grim quality of a fairy tale. Then the Nazis invade Denmark, and all thought of travel vanishes as she watches her teenage brother get involved in the Resistance.
“Out Stealing Horses,” in which a man in his 60s tries to recapture the pastoral, physically demanding life of the summer when he was 15, established Norwegian author Petterson as an international phenomenon – winning accolades, including the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – and earning a well-deserved slot on numerous Top 10 lists.
“To Siberia” is actually an earlier novel. It was published in England in 1998, but has never before been available in the US. Both novels deal with abandonment and hinge around the Nazi invasion of World War II. But where echoes from the war terminate the childhood of the narrator of “Horses,” it’s the war itself that put an end to the narrator’s in “Siberia.”
That childhood looks pretty bleak and spare, except for Jesper. He’s the one who instigates the nighttime prowls that offer a taste of freedom and is the only character in the novel with a discernible sense of humor.