I recently received this review from an Estonian writer, about ‘Finnish Boys’. It does get into the book’s plot and it is refreshing to see someone else’s view of the story. Siiri ‘gets it’ in my view and has a great way of putting it too! But enough from me, make your own mind up!
Finnish Boys is a novel set in Estonia during 1941, at the time when Soviet forces were retreating before Nazi German invaders. It was a savage period, when Estonian nation-alists were set against Soviet Destroyer squads partly formed of unwilling Estonians. No one knew whom to trust, and it is the brutality and edginess that form the core of this compelling narrative.
Families were torn apart. Forced enlistment to both opposing armed forces caused brother to fight brother, and son into combat with father. On whichever side Estonians were placed, was both mortally dangerous in battle, and risked subsequent accusations of treachery from the opposing side. Those mobilised into the German army could face retribution after the Soviet re-occupation of 1944.
In 1940 the enthusiasm and achievements of twenty years of independence had col-lapsed almost overnight. First, the invaders from the East took their crop of people, provisions, and valuables. In the novel, Farmer Peeter saw his family murdered by Rus-sians, and their farm burnt down. What hope for the future is he left with? In a desper-ate search for purpose, he joins the anti-Soviet resistance movement. Former civil serv-ant Maarja Tamm returns to her family farm near Märjamaa to find it almost destroyed. Like Peeter, she joins the guerillas allied to the Finnish Boys of the book’s title. These were Estonians exiled to Finland in 1939-40, now forming units in the Finnish army, and fighting to regain independence for Estonia. They were wary of the invading Germans and the Nazis’ relations with the Finnish armed forces. This creates another layer of un-predictability in a novel packed with uncertainties.
Yet it is the fictional characters as much as the historical events that form the core of the novel, and its strength. We come to empathise with Märt the hard-working baker turned guerilla fighter, Maarja his estranged wife who longs for the return of a normal, peaceful life, Juhan her smiling and unshakeable son, and the mysterious Englishman Harry.
These people are living the cruel inevitability of the times: you hide in the forests, sometimes for years, and fight for your country, hoping for the best, ready for skir-mishes at any moment, facing possible death at any time of the day or night, or witness-ing the sudden loss of some kindred soul. You run into a shower of bullets, kill the en-emy, snatch useful necessities, like boots, weapons and cigarettes, from the deceased. Your victim might be a young, innocent man, far away from his home, just another casu-alty of the war machine. Never you know whether this is your last day, where you will sleep, or from where your next meal will come.
The narrative includes the real-life heroic story of the Estonian trawler, the Eestirand, comandeered by the Soviets to take Estonian conscripts to Russia to defend Leningrad. They seized control of the ship, and the brave captain skillfully wrecked his ship on Prangli island, saving 2,700 lives. Real history underlies the whole novel, but it can also be read simply as a war adventure story.
Yet this is a novel written in English by a Welshman. How can someone who is not Esto-nian really penetrate this complex and stressful period in Estonian history? Geraint Rob-erts has the advantage of being married to an Estonian, experiencing the country beyond the Tallinn tourist trail, and having a keen understanding of Estonian history. The novel centres on a cast of varied Estonians, a challenge to any writer attempting to under-stand the character and the soul of a people. These are rounded personalities, certainly not cyphers, and there are moments of real insight. When a stubborn farmer risks his and his wife’s life by not abandoning their home, another farmer says bitterly, “He is a slave to the land. It is part of him, and he is part of it. He would perish before giving up his birthright.”
Finnish Boys is a considerable achievement from a writer who is not Estonian. It gives an insight to the small country of Estonia and its fighting, independent spirit, caught be-tween two ruthless superpowers.
If we come to like them, most of the characters reappear in the sequel, Forest Brothers, and a further sequel is promised too! This book thoroughly deserves translation into Es-tonian, although the English used is not particularly complex.
Siiri lives in Viljandimaa where she grew up. She was in the UK for 23 years, working in tourism and libraries. She regularly writes travel articles for the Estonian press