Translated from Finnish by David Hackston

Winner of the 2020 Savonia Prize

This is a case of one book leading to another for one mystery in Katja Ivar’s Trouble is rooted in the murkiness of WWII. Except the Finns don’t talk about WWII. For them the years 1939-1945 are divided into three separate conflicts: the Winter War 1939-1940 (Finland vs Soviet Union), the Continuation War 1941-1944 (Finland and Nazi Germany vs Soviet Union), and the Lapland War 1944-1945 (Finland vs Nazi Germany). During the Continuation War, a time when Finnish ideology was aiming to create a Greater Finland, and right wing politicians had more in common with the Nazis than might be comfortable to admit today, a network of German “penal colonies” was set up in Lapland.

It is to one such that the young Väinö Remes is sent as an interpreter and guard in 1944. There are four sets of prisoners here and they are segregated: Ukrainians, Soviets and Serbs. Väinö isn’t sure as to the makeup of the fourth set, although he knows they are not Jews.

Inerki arrives in the north in 1947 to report on the redevelopment of Lapland, which was reduced to ashes as the Nazis implemented a scorched earth policy during their retreat. In addition, she is trying to trace the whereabouts of her husband, Kalle. She knows she is getting close when she finds a photograph in which he features alongside a Nazi officer and a Finnish guard.

The dual timelines of Väinö’s diary and Inerki’s narrative means that we know more than she does, and that perhaps it’s not in her best interests to find out what her husband got up to at that time. For the diary pulls no punches. Väinō is not a believer in the cause, although his role makes him part of it, and he follows orders. He documents the horrors in the camp with growing consternation. What really disconcerts him, however, are the actions of Saara, an indigenous woman with violet eyes who becomes his lover. She knows exactly what goes on in that fourth area of the camp: abuse of the local Sámi community in the form of racial profiling and furtherance of the Finnish Eugenics Programme.

When confronted, she says: “This isn’t what I believe or what I want. But I believe in survival.”

It’s an age-old and often used defence. Is it enough?

The issue – and this is the core theme of Rautiainen’s novel – is the policy of forced assimilation of Sámis into Finnish life and culture that continued long after the war. This is shown in the story of Bigga-Marja, a Sámi girl befriended by Inerki, who is forced to attend a Finnish school to be educated in Finnish. And submit to being measured in an ongoing racial profiling programme, which the new Finnish government is, despite the past, continuing. Except she doesn’t because some echoes of the recent past are too much to bear. In addition this culture clash is made more palpable by the translator’s decision to retain Sámi words in the English translation. Northern Sámi (which is used in the novel) and Finnish are not mutually intelligible and he wanted to preserve the sense of alieniation that Finnish readers would experience reading the original.

The Land of Snow and Ashes is a prime example of why I read historical fiction, even when it addresses such weighty material as this. This novel served as an introduction to a topic I would never otherwise encounter. The subject matter, while shocking, is made bearable by the personal mysteries that provide narrative impetus. Would Inerki discover her husband’s fate? How would Bigga-Marja develop? And what exactly happened to Väinö after the war?