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Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge was written by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, and translated from Finnish into English. It has also been translated into 49 other languages, and is billed as an international bestseller. The picture above is from the Finnish paperback.

The novel takes place in Estonia, and alternates between chapters in the 1990’s, and chapters from the 1930’s to 1950’s. The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her. We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know who Zara is.

What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her? These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops as the novel progresses. While the story focuses on human relationships and personalities, it is based on historical events, so it is helpful to know some basic Estonian history (which I looked up in an encyclopedia). Here is what you need to know: Estonia was independent from 1918 to 1940, when it was taken over (against the will of most Estonians) by the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Germany occupied Estonia, and in 1944 the Soviet Union took over again. Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Knowing this history makes clear the significance of the novel’s dates. The modern sections take place in 1991 and 1992, shortly after Estonia’s independence, and the historical sections takes place from 1936 to 1951, shortly before and during the Soviet takeover of Estonia. Two maps in the book are helpful, and show that Estonia borders Russia and is separated by a narrow gulf from Finland. Zara’s home, Vladivostok, is a city at the other end of Russia, past Siberia, on the border with China.

I don’t want to give too much away about this gripping novel, but it is clear at the beginning that some of the characters fought for Estonian independence, while others worked for the Soviets. The novel prompts readers to consider issues of motivation, fear, and love. Aliide, in particular, is a fascinating character. Be warned that some parts of the novel are unsettling to read because of the abuse suffered by the characters. This is an unusual, complex, and discussion-worthy novel.

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village.

The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the title indicates, the story concerns two old women, Sa’ (75 years old) and Ch’idzigyaak (80 years old). When was the last time you read a novel about the adventures of elderly women? These women have a habit of complaining about their aches and pains as an excuse to avoid hard work. During a cold autumn, at a time of scarce food, the chief of their band decides that the women must be left behind as the younger members move on in search of food.

At first the old women are stunned, and even resigned to dying. Yet they have to admit that they are still capable of hard work. With the help of some tools and supplies they have been left with, they successfully hunt and trap small game. Still, the long, cold winter looms ahead. Will they be able to survive? They decide to set up a more permanent winter camp along a creek teeming with fish that Ch’idzigyaak remembered visiting years ago, and begin their trek to this location.

In writing this book, Velma Wallis relied on her own skills and knowledge of surviving off the land in a remote area. I enjoyed the descriptions of how the women went about the tasks of daily living: maintaining the fire, making snowshoes, using caribou skins to fashion a sled, and digging a temporary snow shelter.

The writing style is simple and direct. Here is a paragraph just after the women learn they are to be left behind:

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death—to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength. Two weak old women stood no chance against such a rule. The news left them without words or action and no way to defend themselves. (p. 7)

Illustrations by Athabaskan Indian artist Jim Grant help readers picture the characters and scenes. This lovely, inspiring book in the vein of My Side of the Mountain can be enjoyed by middle and high school students as well as adults.