A brave and simple woman

Posted on June 10, 2012


The Peace Islands – Aland Islands’ motto

My Long Time Love and Live-in Programmer, Chad, is forgiven.  Having cajoled me into going to the Aland Islands, I found I really liked them, or at least their embodiment in the form of Sally Salminen’s Katrina.  Really, really, really, very much so in fact.   The book as an object set the journey off on a very good footing.   It came in hardback with a plastic coated dustcover (beloved of libraries) simply bearing the title and author’s name.  On the flysheet under the heading ‘POINT’, who could fail to be charmed by this –  ‘This Edition for Readers’ Union members is possible only by co-operative reader demand and the sacrifice of ordinary profit margins by all concerned’? A feel good read indeed.  Then comes a contents page (I like contents pages). Chapters are numbered with roman numerals and chapter headings such as XXX. Johan’s Last Voyage (you can imagine what happens in chapter 30). [1]  Then follows a sketch of a beautiful young peasant girl in a headscarf under which runs the caption, ‘This is the Tale of Katrina: The Portrait of a Brave and Simple Woman.’  The book ends very satisfyingly with ‘THE END’. I love it when it does that, but then I also like the ‘fin’ at the end of French films. Don’t know why, but it makes me smile.   So, as you see, I started this side trip in very good spirits.  But I’ve watched enough Masterchef to know that even the best looking dishes might not ‘eat well’.

Thankfully, Katrina, God love her, doesn’t disappoint.  This is a novel that is hard not to be moved by.   I don’t want to go into the plot too much, because, if you can find a copy in translation, hard though that is, I urge you to read it. I suspect I shall be passing mine on, never to be seen again. I hope it has an interesting journey through many hands.

Katrina is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s Good Earth or Walter Macken’s Silent People in chronicling the reality of peasants living at the will of nature, the whim of landowners and the whimsy of Gods. It sits alongside the saddest of Hardy’s novels, Jude the Obscure, in leaving you feeling bruised and tired and overwhelmingly sad.  At a time when it’s easy to be seduced by ideas of self-sufficiency, to play at it, supplementing yield with shop-bought goodies, it is as well to be reminded not to confuse cakes with bread – we may lose our heads. No danger of that here. There is an authenticity in the novel’s descriptions of unlovely poverty and in its sense of social outrage, which must come for Salminen’s own experiences as the daughter of a large family, sent young to work as a servant, eventually finding work as a maid in New York – families being separated by the necessity of finding work, is a constant theme of the book.  Yet, this is not a book that resolves social injustice.  Katrina is not a heroine who overthrows the unjust social order, she shows her courage in her ability to survive and stick up for herself within the system.   It’s a book of the ordinary courage of women, overlooked in terms of receiving medals, but as deserving as soldiers nonetheless.   Finally, Katrina is a novel that asks the large philosophical questions – What are we here for?  What is life worth if all we do is toil and die? If we bring children into the world only for them to toil and die?

So, you get the picture. This is a book of sorrows.  But it is sorrow beautifully written. It wraps around you like a sea fog, a fog through which brief shafts of sunlight break.



[1] Roman numerals always make my throat tighten. My late Dad once wrote out for me, by hand, all the Roman numerals from 1-100 + all the big numbers 500, 1000 etc thereafter.  For my Dad, not a man who got overly involved with his 5 children, this was an act of love.  I still have the piece of paper with its fading penciled numbers.