I have recently released a novel called ‘Forest Brothers’, based in Estonia and I am asked a lot these days why I chose this setting. Certainly, I have no connection by birth or ancestry to the country. I am from Wales, hardly a neighbouring land. However, I have been married to an Estonian girl for 11 years and my visits to her nation have made me feel an empathy with her country. I must admit we did not meet in the conventional manner, we started talking on an astrological website! Then we carried on talking. A lot. The stars tell us we aren’t compatible. Missed that part of the script somewhere. But I do find this is mirrored with my affection for Estonia, I shouldn’t feel I have anything in common either.
My knowledge of Estonia was achieved via default, I’m afraid. I remember Leicester University receiving a delegation of students from the Soviet Union in 1983. ‘The Russians are coming!’ the student newspaper sounded out, then sheepishly beat a retreat as the ‘Russians’ politely informed them, that they were in fact Estonian. In the 1980s, to us everyone in the Soviet Union was Russian. In the same way that to the world at large, the UK is just England by another name. I know how much that annoys me, so I can understand how irritating it must have felt to those students.
I wasn’t totally ignorant to the Baltic nations, even if my school history books had chosen to forget their plight in the war. However, as I explored this country, now so much more accessible by 2001, I began to appreciate something of the culture and found similarities with my own homeland, that I found made me feel at ease in Estonia.
There’s certainly nothing similar in language. The Celtic framework bears no relation to that found in Estonian. The rugged mountains of my homeland are stark contrast to the swathe of forest that reach the shores of the Baltic Sea. The two histories are certainly not similar. However, I think there is something similar in the small nation psyche. Being for so long part of a larger state, overlooked and influenced by a larger neighbour. In Wales, the response has been to focus on what you can claim to be exclusively of your land – your culture, language, music and arts. There appeared to be a similar mindset in Estonia. We like being a small group, we like being different. We are proud of it.
In my fiction writing, I indulge in history that interests me and focus on events and areas that my potential audience are not so aware of. As my links to Wales and Estonia were now quite established, and my creative writing was developing, I sought to find a story that could somehow marry up the two.
Back in 2001, on my first date, in a freezing February Tallinn, I was fascinated by a memorial on the city walls. It was to the Royal Navy for the part they played in Estonia’s war of independence. I was surprised, for I felt despite my personal knowledge of my country’s history being better than average, I had no knowledge of this event. I had found a story I wanted to tell. I read more and found our Navy had not won Estonia’s independence, but had certainly watched their backs whilst the country struggled and won a land war against two invading armies.
The main character to ‘Forest Brothers’ was born that freezing day on a medieval wall by Fat Margaret. In the story, Huw is a young trainee officer in the Royal Navy squadron of 1918 that was based in Tallinn. He runs away with an Estonian girl, but eventually is recaptured. His life is in ruins by 1944, when he is sent back as a British agent to make contact with a group of Forest Brothers on Estonia’s North coast. The land has changed dramatically and is now is bracing itself as Germany retreats from the onslaught of the Soviet Union.
For Huw’s story, I have made use of the many areas I have visited in the North and West. His journey takes him into contact with some memorable places, where the ghosts of his past reach out to reconnect with him. This was not a hard thing to do. as the land almost wishes to tell you its story as you go. Most of the prose was written in the forest close to Marjamaa, albeit with one leg in plaster courtesy of a torn achilles. My character didn’t have that problem, which was just as well, he had a lot of ground to cover as his mission quickly changes, influenced by the people he meets. The title ‘Forest Brothers’ is descriptive on more than one level.
I have traveled around most of the country and its main islands. All the things that make Estonia different to me have found their way into the novel. Whether it be narrow medieval streets, long sandy beaches with shallow seas, storks nesting on old telegraph poles or the forest bugs who love to bite me. I still get surprised by new discoveries at every visit. Last year, I was given the chance to explore Naissaar. a new adventure to add to the list. In the past I have supped Estonian wine with my black bread and sat on the lakeside at Leigo and let the music weave its magic. In short, Estonia never stops surprising me.
There is a lot more to see and explore and who knows, Estonia may weave another story within my creative mind. I look forward to it