I was fourteen and a half when the Germans came. On that 9th April we woke to the roar of aeroplanes swooping so low over the roofs of the town that we could see the black iron crosses painted on the underside of their wings when we leaned out of the windows and looked up.
In this exquisite novel, readers will find the crystalline prose and depth of feeling they adored in Out Stealing Horses, a literary sensation of 2007.
A brother and sister are forced ever more closely together after the suicide of their grandfather. Their parents' neglect leaves them wandering the streets of their small Danish village. The sister dreams of escaping to Siberia, but it seems increasingly distant as she helplessly watches her brother become more and more involved in resisting the Nazis.
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About the Author
Per Petterson won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Out Stealing Horses, which has been translated into more than thirty languages and was named a Best Book of 2007 by The New York Times.
Read an Excerpt
By Per Petterson, Anne Born
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1996 Forlaget Oktober A.S., Oslo
All rights reserved.
When I was a little girl of six or seven I was always scared when we passed the lions on our way out of town. I was sure Lucifer felt as I did, for he always put on speed at that very place, and I did not realize until much later it was because my grandfather whipped him up sharply on the way down the gentle slope past the gateway where the lions were, and that was because Grandfather was an impatient man. It was a well-known fact.
The lions were yellow and I sat at the rear of the trap dangling my legs, alone or with my brother Jesper, with my back towards Grandfather, watching the lions diminishing up there. They turned their heads and stared at me with yellow eyes. They were made of stone, as were the plinths they lay on, but all the same their staring made my chest burn and gave me a hollow feeling inside. I could not take my eyes off them. Each time I tried to look down at the graveled road instead, I turned dizzy and felt I was falling.
"They're coming! They're coming!" shouted my brother, who knew all about those lions, and I looked up again and saw them coming. They tore themselves free of the stone blocks and grew larger, and I jumped off the trap heedless of the speed, grazed my knees on the gravel and ran out into the nearest field. There were roe deer and stags in the forest beyond the field, and I thought about that as I ran.
"Can't you leave the lass alone!" bellowed my grandfather. I stopped running, there was dew on the grass and my ankles were wet, I felt stubble and stalks and rough ground under my bare feet. Grandfather pulled in the reins and shouted at the horse and the trap came to a halt; he turned around and out of his beard a stream of oaths as foul as the devil himself could utter poured over Jesper's head. My grandfather was a man full of wrath and in the end I always had to stand up for my brother, for there was no way I could live without him.
I walked across the grass to the road again, climbed onto the trap and smiled at Jesper. Grandfather cracked the whip and Lucifer moved off and Jesper smiled back.
I walk the same road with my father. It is Christmas time. I am nine years old. It is unusually cold today, hoarfrost and leafless poplars line the fields beside the road. Something gray moves at the gray edge of the forest, the thin legs of deer step stiffly and frosty mist comes in puffs from their soft muzzles, I can see it though I'm a long way away. You could touch the air, like glass, and everything seems very close. I am wearing my cap and scarf, my hands are thrust deep into my coat pockets. There is a hole in one, I can feel the lining on the inside. Now and then I look up at him. There's a bulge at the top of his back, almost like a hump. He got that out in the fields and he is never going back there, he says. My father is a carpenter in town, Grandfather gave him a workshop when he left the farm.
He grits his teeth. He is bareheaded and he looks straight in front of him with red-rimmed eyes, his ears are white with frost and I can't stop looking at them. They are like porcelain. His arm rises and stops before it gets to them, and he almost forces it down again. When we are halfway I take my hand out of my pocket to hold his, and he takes it without looking down and squeezes it lightly, but I am doing it because he is the one who is cold.
When we pass the lions we don't turn to look at them, he because he is just looking straight ahead anyway and I because I do not want to. We are going out to the farm. My mother is there already, and my uncles and Jesper are there, and my father walks stiffly and does not hurry. We have come three kilometers from town, it is the twenty-fourth of December and then I turn around after all. The lions lie on their plinths covered with grayish white shining ice. Yesterday it rained and then came the frost, and now they are caged and look like my father's ears, two porcelain lions on guard before the avenue leading to Bangsbo Manor where Hans Christian Andersen stayed when he came as far north as this, the tall hat in the low rooms, a black streak of a man who always had to bend his head, on his way in, on his way out.
I try to walk faster, I am worried about his ears, I have heard they can fall off, but he keeps on at the same speed. I pull him by the arm and then he gets cross.
"Stop that, can't you!" he snaps and pulls me back in place roughly and this is the first thing he has said since we stepped out of the door onto Asylgate. My father is fond of Jesper. I am fond of my father. Jesper is fond of me, but he likes to tease me, frighten me in the dark with death's heads, pull me under water in the summer. I can stand it, it makes me feel like him. I am walking alone with my father, it is Christmas and his ears are made of porcelain. I'm afraid they will fall off and he does not touch them the whole five kilometers to the farm.
There are four farms in Vrangbæk and they are all called Vrangbæk, it is quite a small village. There are some children there, they go to Vangen School in Understed. I might have been one of them, but I'm not, and "You should be glad about that," Jesper always tells me. We turn left at the crossroads where the road straight ahead winds across the fields to Gærum and the one to the right goes up to North Vrangbæk. We pass the first barn of stone and brick, my father walks if anything still slower and more stiffly and keeps a firm hold on my hand. The road takes a sharp bend with a steep slope on one side paved with round stones at the lowest point, it looks like a stone wall but is there to stop the earth from sliding on to the road after rain and barring the way. We are going to the last farm, they are close together and near the road, so you can just walk straight into the big cobbled yard with the dung heap in the middle. Everything is glazed with a layer of shining ice. The cobblestones leading to the door are slippery.
The first person I catch sight of is Jesper, he has seen us from the window. He stands waiting at the living room door. Behind him I see the Christmas tree and the window on the opposite side with frost flowers halfway up the panes. It looks pretty. I hear my mother's voice. She is a Christian, her voice is Christian. She has one foot on earth and one in heaven. Jesper smiles as if we share a secret. Maybe we do, I do not remember. My father goes straight over to the big tiled stove. It is rumbling, I can see it is hot because the air around it quivers and I feel it on my face and he goes so close I'm afraid he is going to press his forehead to the tiles. I take off my coat and he lifts his arms like a puppet on a string and presses his hands to his ears. In the living room my mother sings "Chime ye bells," and Jesper gazes at me and over at the man standing in front of the stove. I hold my coat in my arms and see his crooked back and jutting jawbones and the white frosty vapor running out between his fingers.
The attic at the farm was icy cold and usually in half darkness with only one paraffin lamp I had to turn off as soon as I had gone up the stairs. There was a small window on the east side and the bed was under the window and kneeling on it I could talk to Jesper in the evenings when it was summertime and look out at the stars in winter and a spruce hedge and a Chinese garden from another world and then just rolling fields right out to the sea. Sometimes in the night I would wake up under the coarse heavy duvet thinking I had heard the sea filling the room, and I opened my eyes and it was just as dark as when I shut them again. The darkness lay close to my face and I thought, it doesn't make any difference whether I can see or not. But there was a difference, and I would be frightened, for the darkness was big and heavy and full of sounds and I knew if I did not shut my eyes quickly I would be smothered. But when I wasn't frightened it was like being lifted up to float in space with a wind through my heart.
I lie in bed looking into the dark and everything is black and then it turns gray, for the moon has come out. I can't hear the sea. It is frozen like everything else, frozen and quiet. I do not think I am dreaming anymore.
Someone is knocking. That is why I woke up, I remember now. I wait and the knocking comes again and I get up from under the duvet which has warmed through at last and walk across the cold floor in my nightdress to where I know the door is. More knocking. It is not the door, it's the window. I turn around and see a shadow moving against the moonlight in front of the window. It is Jesper. I know it's Jesper.
"Let me in," he whispers loudly, breathing warmth on the glass. I run over to the bed and jump up onto it knees first and open the window. A cold gust rushes in, it chills my chest and stomach and my thoughts turn sharp at the edges. I remember everything, the porcelain lions and porcelain ears and Grandmother's straight neck and Grandfather and my mother's frail voice fluttering in the room like a thin veil we all tend to ignore. Jesper hangs on to the eaves with one hand and has one foot on the windowsill. He has my boots around his neck with the laces knotted behind his head.
"Get dressed and come with me," he says.
"All right," I say.
I have a will of my own, I do not do everything I'm told, but I want to be with Jesper. He does things that are original, I like that and I am wide awake now. He swings himself in and sits on the bed waiting and he smiles the whole time. I hurry to put my clothes on. They are lying on a chair and they're very cold. The moon shines in through the open window and makes silver circles on the bedposts, on a pitcher, on an alarm clock whose hands have always stood still.
"What's the time?" I ask.
"Haven't a clue." He smiles so his teeth shine in the semi-darkness. I start laughing, but then he puts his finger to his lips. I nod and do the same and then I find my woolen underwear and pull it on and the heavy skirt and a sweater. I have brought my coat up to my room with me, it hangs over the chair back. Jesper hands me my boots, and when I am ready we climb out.
"Don't be scared, just do what I do," he says.
I'm not scared, and I just do what he does, it is not difficult when we do it in time with each other, he goes first and I follow, it is like a dance only the two of us know and we dance along the roof until we come to the end where a birch reaches up with strong branches and there we climb down. Jesper goes first, and I follow him.
We keep away from the road and the wing where the grown-ups' bedrooms are and go through the Chinese garden in the moonlight to get out into the fields. There are narrow paths and frozen shrubs and dead flowers in the garden and a winding artificial stream with frozen water, and there are several little wooden bridges across the stream. Carp swim in the stream in summer and maybe they are still there, underneath the ice. As we cross the bridges the woodwork creaks so loudly I am afraid it will wake the people in the house. When the moon goes behind a cloud I stop and wait.
"Jesper, wait," I call softly, but he does not wait before he is through the garden and into the first field. Then he turns around and there is moonlight again and I catch up with him.
We walk across the fields, at first we wind upward and then down on the other side till we can see the sea and we throw shadows as we walk. I have never been outside like this, never had a shadow at night. My coat is lit up in front by the moon and Jesper's back is completely dark. When we stop and look out over the ice it is white at first and then shining and then just the open sea.
Jesper takes something from his pocket and puts it in his mouth and lights a match. And then he blows it out. There is a scent of cigar. He says:
"It won't be long before I'm going to do what Ernst Bremer did. Get hold of a fast boat and go to Sweden and come back with enough booze for everyone who wants to to get really drunk. I shall make money and smoke cigars. But I shall only drink on Saturdays. And then only two glasses."
Jesper is twelve. Ernst Bremer is a smuggler. He is the greatest of them all and everyone knows who he is. A short man from Gothenburg who has a house in the street beyond ours where he stays when no one is after him. I have seen him walk past in a gray coat, with his dark hair parted in the middle and sometimes wearing a beret. He has been in the papers lots of times, once with a drawing by Storm Petersen showing him thumbing his nose at the customs officers, and when the boys are out in the evening they do not play cops and robbers, but Ernst Bremer and customs men. He is better than Robin Hood. My father bought a bottle off him one summer, but when my mother realized where it came from she made him pour it out onto the flower bed. None of the flowers died, although she said it was poison.
Jesper blows gray smoke at the sea, and then he coughs and spits.
"Phoo!" he says, "but I'll need some practice first."
My mother is velvet, my mother is iron. My father often stays silent and sometimes over dinner he picks up the burning hot pan by its iron handle and holds it until I have filled my plate, and when he puts it back I can see the red marks on his hand.
"Hans Christian Andersen stayed at Bangsbo," I say although I know Jesper knows this and he says:
"I know," and we walk beside the water for a while and up a steep dune and back again across the fields. We have the moon on our backs and the shadow is in front and that is worse right away. I don't like it even though I see the house clearly when we get to the top. It is dark down the slope. The wind is getting up, I keep my hand on one cheek, for it is freezing, then some clouds start to gather and I can barely see. We go around the garden instead of through it and come up to the house where the barn stands at an angle, and Jesper goes right across to the barn alongside the spruce hedge and puts his face to the nearest window. The whitewashed walls are as murky as fog, and he shades his eyes with one hand as if there were reflections and sunlight outside, but it is dark and I can't see what he is looking at and he says:
"Jesus Christ, Grandfather has hanged himself in the cowshed."
"No!" I cry and cannot think why he chose to say just that, but I have often thought about it since, in all the years that have passed until now.
"Yes," he says, "come over and see." I don't want to see, I feel sick even though I know it is not true, but still I run over and put my face beside his. It's completely dark, I can't see anything.
"I can't see anything. You haven't seen anything, it's all dark." I press my face to the pane, there is a smell of cowshed in there, there is a smell of cold and Jesper starts to chuckle. Suddenly I feel how cold it is.
"We'll go in then," he says, and stops laughing.
"I don't want to go in yet. It's colder inside. I won't be able to sleep either."
"I mean into the cowshed. It's warm there."
We go around the barn over the cobbles as far as the cowshed door. It creaks when we open it and I wonder if Grandfather is hanging there, perhaps I shall walk straight into his legs, perhaps they'll swing to and fro. But he is not hanging there and it's suddenly warmer, the smell is a smell I know. Jesper goes in among the stalls. There are a lot of them, there are twenty-five cows, it is not a small farm, they have laborers. Grandmother had worked in the kitchen before she was married to Grandfather. She wore a white apron then but she has never done so since. She is mother to my father, not to his brothers, and no time was wasted before that wedding once Hedvig was in her grave, so my mother told us. Grandmother and Grandfather are hardly ever in the same room together, and when they are Grandmother holds her head high and her neck stiff. Everyone can see it.
I stand there getting used to the heavy darkness. I hear Jesper's steps inside and the cows shifting about in the stalls, and I know without seeing them that most of them are lying down, they're sleeping, they're chewing, they bump their horns against the low dividing walls and fill the darkness with deep sounds.
Excerpted from To Siberia by Per Petterson, Anne Born. Copyright © 1996 Forlaget Oktober A.S., Oslo. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. The narrator, referenced only as "Sistermine" by her brother, is never named. This increases the detachment between narrator and reader. Why do you think Petterson chose to leave her nameless?
2. Sistermine mentions her family's dynamics early and often. "I am fond of my father. My father is fond of Jesper. Jesper is fond of me…" (p. 7-8). Why does she feel this way? Do events later in the story support this statement?
3. Jasper and Sistermine both eerily predict events that end up coming true. What do you make of Jasper foretelling his grandfather's suicide before it happens? Of Sistermine wishing the German truck to disappear? Do these nearly impossible predictions make you question the narrator's credibility?
4. Sistermine spends much of the book following her brother's lead. She states, "I have a will of my own, I do not do everything I'm told, but I want to be with Jesper. He does things that are original, I like that…" (p. 11). Throughout the novel, she is constantly seeking connections with Jesper and trying to keep up with him. Do you believe she truly has "a will of her own"? Look for and discuss instances where she acts independently.
5. As much as Sistermine admires her brother, she lacks his drive and motivation to change the world. Throughout the story, she is often either following her brother or taking the path of least resistance. Why does Sistermine seem to simply let life happen to her?
6. Why don't Sistermine and Jesper understand their grandfather's suicide sentiment of "I cannot go on any longer"? (p. 29). They cite his physical strength, and wonder what he could not go on with. Why don't they understand the psychological component of his suicide?
7. What does it mean to be a Christian in this book? Think about Sistermine's mother and the Cooperative of the town her mother grew up in. Why do you think Sistermine and Jesper don't believe in God? Why does she feel God has abandoned her? Why does Sistermine hang a picture of Lucifer in her room?
8. Gender plays a large role in the book – women are expected to do certain types of work. Yet Sistermine's mother holds large sway over her father. Discuss their power struggles. Who ultimately is the decision maker in the family? What circumstances is her mother in charge of?
9. Sistermine works hard to be a good pupil, saying "If I am ever to get away from this place and right to the other end of the world, I need good marks" (p 47). Ultimately, her good grades don't get her anywhere. How would she have been different if she was allowed to go to gymnasium? Why does she ultimately flee her hometown?
10. Discuss the role of the war and German occupation in the story. While the war helps to drive the plot, it is not the main focus of the book. How does the war affect the immediate family? The community? What are their disparate reactions to the Germans?
11. What role does folklore play in the novel? Why do the characters reference the Man from Danzig so frequently?
12. Issues with authority and the struggle of the oppressed is a theme in this novel. Discuss how different characters deal with those above them throughout the story. (Within the family, Sistermine and Lone, Grandfather and Jesper's fight with the Baron, with the Germans, Sistermine and Jorgensen.) Even when the odds are insurmountable, characters continue to fight. What drives them?
13. The narrator's desire to travel to Siberia comes up again and again, beginning when she is quite young. What is going to be different about Siberia? She admits that it will still be cold, and the cold of her hometown is constantly mentioned and always unpleasant. Why is it her goal to get there, as opposed to somewhere like Jesper's dream of Morocco? What does Siberia symbolize for her? Why do you think this unfulfilled wish provides the title for the book?
14. Discuss Sistermine's romantic and sexual experiences. She desires connections with her brother, parents and friends throughout the story, and yet frequently has casual, meaningless sexual liaisons. Why does she allow Solgunn to kiss her, even though she "is not like that"? (p 203). Is her relationship with the man who visits the cafe different? Why does she go to the boxing match?
15. Sistermine knows she is pregnant immediately when it happens. Is it just a coincidence that she is correct? Why is she so calm and accepting of the fact, while her mother is furious?
16. Does Sistermine return home solely to see Jesper? How does she react when she finds out he is dead? Her brother was such a huge part of her life growing up, why do you think there is no account of her feelings?
17. The story is told by Sistermine as a woman of 60, looking back over 40 or more years. Her flashbacks are nonlinear, and her memories often travel to different times in her life unexpectedly. How did this affect your reading of the story? She still writes with an immediacy that captures the moments in time from her younger perspective with great detail. As she reminisces, is she a reliable narrator? Did you like the construction of the story? Why or why not?
18. To Siberia was originally written in Norwegian and translated into English. The language and flow, therefore, is not Petterson's but Anne Born's interpretation and recreation. How does this affect your reading of the story? How do you think it would be different reading it in the original language?
19. The book ends rather abruptly, and leaves loose ends. "I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest" (p. 245). Why do you think Petterson chose this sentiment to conclude the novel?