To Siberia

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In the bitter cold of Danish Jutland, where the sea freezes over and the Nazis have yet to invade, a young girl dreams of going on a great journey to Siberia, while her brother Jesper yearns for the warmer climes of Morocco. Given a staunchly Christian mother who composes and sings hymns all day, a father who is too philanthropic a joiner to be successful, and a grandfather who takes his life in a cowshed, the relationship between brother and sister flourishes. Jesper has an originality that stands out in the ...
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To Siberia: A Novel

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In the bitter cold of Danish Jutland, where the sea freezes over and the Nazis have yet to invade, a young girl dreams of going on a great journey to Siberia, while her brother Jesper yearns for the warmer climes of Morocco. Given a staunchly Christian mother who composes and sings hymns all day, a father who is too philanthropic a joiner to be successful, and a grandfather who takes his life in a cowshed, the relationship between brother and sister flourishes. Jesper has an originality that stands out in the small community, and his sister follows in his wake as they wend their way around the town in moonlit and daytime endeavours. As the narrator looks back she reflects on the harsh realities of their existence and the consequences of their choices. It is out of small and negligible things that a life may be composed, and the beauty of Petterson's narrative lies in the resonances of one which is outwardly barren but so sharply etched, so charged with meaning.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This 1996 novel predates Pettersen's acclaimed Out Stealing Horses(first published in 2003), and has all of Pettersen's haunted charms. As an unnamed young girl and her big brother, Jesper (who calls her "Sistermine"), grow up in rural WWII-era Denmark, the two cope with distant parents, an eccentric extended family and the cold wind. Jesper longs to go south to Morocco; Sistermine yearns for the plains of Siberia, foreshadowing lives that will diverge. Their grandfather's suicide, the arrival of puberty and most tragically, the German invasion change their idyllic childhood relationship; as each sibling fights back against the occupation in his or her own way, their inevitable separation looms. The second half of the novel, in which Sistermine struggles to make sense of her life in various Scandinavian cities and towns, awaiting a hoped-for reunion with Jesper, is less breathtaking and mesmerizing than the first, but the contrast makes her numb loneliness and inability to connect all the more poignant. The book builds up slowly, casting a spell of beauty and devastation that matches the bleak but dazzling climate that enshrouds Sistermine's young life. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
The realization of life's unfulfilled dreams is the theme of this beautifully written novel, which recounts the unnamed narrator's childhood and adolescence in a small Danish town. She dearly loves her brother, Jesper, the only person in her family she cares about. Her rigid, intolerant parents are unresponsive to her need for affection, scarred by the suicide of her grandfather and her mother's Christianity. Then the Germans bring World War II to their quiet world, and life changes. Jesper joins the underground and is forced to flee the Gestapo. Our narrator continues to dream of escape to Siberia, which in her imagination is an idyllic place where her wishes come true and she is happy. In the final pages, she comes to the realization that her parents are more intolerant than ever, her beloved brother is dead, and she will never be able to fulfill her dream. The author of a story collection and an earlier novel, Norwegian writer Petterson is an outstanding talent. Highly recommended.--Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Danish response to Nazi Germany before and during World War II forms the backdrop for this coming-of-age novel-first published in 1996 in Norway-that covers 13 years in the life of a young girl. The unnamed narrator and her adored older brother Jesper grow up in a rural Danish village with their stern but deeply loving father Magnus, a struggling humpbacked carpenter, and their musical, fanatically religious mother Marie. In 1934 Magnus takes the family on a short beachside vacation that goes awry but that plants the idea of travel in the narrator's head. She begins to dream quixotically of escaping to Siberia, of all places; Jesper, more understandably, fantasizes about Morocco. Then the children's grandfather hangs himself. They are told that Magnus chose to leave their wealthy grandfather's farm for town life. In fact, Magnus was forced off the farm and now the old man has bequeathed him nothing. Magnus's carpentry shop fails, and Marie begins to run a dairy the family must live above, but in a case of poetic justice, hoof and mouth disease eventually makes the farm worthless. While in middle school, the narrator shares her first kiss with Ruben, a Jewish boy. Jesper, now a printer's apprentice with a wicked sense of humor, becomes a socialist. He dreams of fighting in Spain although he's still too young. When the Germans arrive in Denmark, most of the narrator's friends and family join the resistance. Ironically, Jesper fights a German soldier while the narrator saves one from drowning. The Gestapo takes control of the town. Jesper sneaks into Sweden with Ruben's family. By 1947, the narrator is pregnant and living in Norway. She has not seen Jesper, who somehow made it toMorocco, for four years. She returns home expecting a reunion that never happens. A spare, lyrical novel from Norwegian author Petterson (Out Stealing Horses, 2007, etc.) that possesses historical breadth and a remarkable sense of immediacy.
From the Publisher
“A compassionate, moving but clear-eyed view of family relationships . . . overwhelming emotional power.”–Independent

“One of the past decade’s most moving novels.” – Guardian

“Beautifully written. . . . wistfully sad novel . . . Petterson is a writer of great talent and originality.” – Scotsman

The Barnes & Noble Review
If the aim of fiction is to so completely engross readers that they're transported by words and grafted into the lives of fabricated people, then Per Petterson has perfected the art of spellbinding literature. You don't just read his novels of Nordic life, you experience them.

His Out Stealing Horses, winner of the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, captivated readers with its story of a Norwegian widower unpeeling the memories of a tragic past. The novel had all the earmarks of great literature: spare, lucid prose; vibrant characters; wrenching emotional depth; a page-turning plot. Though he'd been publishing fiction in Norway for a decade, Out Stealing Horses catapulted Petterson onto the American literary scene. He has rightfully drawn comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner.

Now Graywolf Press has brought one of Petterson's earlier novels to U.S. shores. To Siberia, translated by Anne Born, tells the story of a young girl -- never named -- who comes of age during the German occupation of Denmark. Though its plot doesn't have the dramatic heft of Out Stealing Horses, this rhythmically lyrical novel, originally published in 1996, is just as distinctly stylized as its award-winning successor.

The story unfolds in a series of ever-shifting flashbacks, narrated by the girl, who lives with her parents and brother in northern Denmark. The hunchbacked father is a carpenter, and the mother is a devout Christian with "one foot on earth and one in heaven" who composes hymns on the family piano. It is an austere household nearly void of familial love. The young girl's closest bond is with her brother Jesper, who lovingly calls her "Sistermine." Three years her senior, Jesper is the stuff of romantic heroes: reckless, funny, smart, matinee-idol handsome, and bold enough to throw clumps of manure at invading German soldiers. It's no wonder his sister adores him with something bordering on religious ecstasy. From an early age, Jesper's ambitions stretch beyond the boundaries of their fishing village. He declares he will be a smuggler and smoke cigars; as he gets older and world politics start to encroach on Denmark, Jesper grows increasingly involved in the underground resistance.

Both children long to escape their rigid upbringing: "Sistermine" dreams of a better life in Siberia ("I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances") while Jesper plans to live in sunnier Morocco, which is also a political hotbed. If the appeal of the longed-for Siberia is any indication, then their life in the provincial town is a hard one indeed. Eventually, Jesper must flee the Nazis and begins his politically nomadic life by going to Sweden, leaving his sister to deal with her loneliness and the harshness of the Occupation.

That Jesper is such a magnetic character is also one of the novel's flaws. When he leaves Denmark, he also leaves the story for good, and his absence is felt by both the narrator and the reader on every remaining page of the book. But Petterson is at his best when the story rides on the simple flow of adolescent thought and language. The whole balance of To Siberia depends on how well the author can pull off the young girl's voice. That he does so with such ease is as singular an achievement as Faulkner's Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. The entire reading experience of To Siberia is filtered through the eyes of a girl painfully aware of the cruelties of adults as well as the beauty of nature. Notice, for instance, how war disrupts the pastoral in this passage:

From the field we had a good view of the road in both directions and the gray shadow of the Peder Skram outside the harbor lying completely still, and we saw the thin floury layer of ice on the beach, a peaceful veil between land and water. And then the Germans came.

Later, when she comes upon Jesper asleep in a shack, "Sistermine" is engorged with a turmoil of love and awe which Petterson expresses in prose that is sensuous and tastes of the forbidden:

I fill my head with thoughts till it feels purple and hot like the glowing iron at the blacksmith's forge while I stand bent over my naked brother weeping because he is beautiful as pictures I have seen in books of men from other times.

Petterson slides the narrative back and forth across timelines, casting the reader adrift and, by consequence, focusing more attention on the immediacy of what's playing out on the page. The reader will come away from To Siberia feeling like a) they have been enveloped in a rich, sensory experience; and b) nothing happened. Memorable plot points stand out like landmarks: a suicide, the invasion of the village, the rescue of one of the soldiers from drowning, Jesper's defense of the family honor in a tavern. In Petterson's novels, narrative events are almost beside the point; what's important are the words which fill the interstices between action and character.

As in Out Stealing Horses, landscape is as much a character as the grim-faced fishermen who crowd the smoky bars. Whole, dense sections of To Siberia are given over to descriptions of traveling between villages:

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.

Likewise, Petterson's unadorned style is at once uniquely transparent and substantive: as delicate as filigreed ice on the edge of a winter lake. --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428990
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 837,567
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Per Petterson
Per Petterson was born in 1952 and was a librarian and bookseller before he published his first work, a volume of short stories, in 1987. Since then he has written five novels which have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers. Out Stealing Horses was awarded the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, the Critics’ Award for Best Novel and won the 12th International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize in 2007. His first novel, In the Wake (in Anne Born’s translation) was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Not well written

    The book had NO plot whatsoever! The author tried to be artsy with the novel but instead succeeding in writing a jumbled mess. Don¿t waste your time. The cover is beautiful and the title holds great potential but there lays the best parts of the entire book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2011

    Disappointing and unsatisfactory

    A let down after reading OUT STEALING HORSES. It started out piquing my interest with the sister's impressions of family and village life, her older caring brother, her dysfunctional parents and grandparents. However as the story continued, once the brother's involvement in anti-Nazi activities ended and he left, her wanderings to cities with strange names and sketchily drawn figures went nowhere. We never found out who fathered her expected child and why the pregnancy even happened in the story line. Perhaps it translation wasn't as good as it could have been - the words didn't flow. Not to say that the descriptions of the various locales weren't good - they were. I could not recommend this book.

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  • Posted November 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    listless, doesn't go anywhere, but does it beautifully

    Per Petterson did a pretty good job of writing through a female character, until she grew up a little. Once she reached adolescence, I felt like he really lost touch with her--and so did I as a reader. The story really didn't go anywhere, but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. However, I much preferred another of his books, Out Stealing Horses, which seemed to have a better plot, and which he seemed better able to pull off.

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  • Posted October 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Lyrical Writing!

    I love a book which has emotional depth. Not only does this book describe a very close relationship between "Sistermine" and Jesper, a sister and brother with parents to whom they feel distanced, but it does so in a particularly vivid setting. The author makes use of the natural beauty and cold weather of Denmark, and later Norway, to make the setting almost as alive as the characters themselves.

    The book is divided into three parts. The first part takes place before World War II with the siblings cavorting as mischievous youth. The second part is during the war when Jesper decides to leave Denmark quickly due to his political ideology and activity. The third part is after the war when Sistermine is waiting for her brother to return.

    For me, the book was really divided into only two parts. The heart of the book was its beginning. After Jesper left, nothing was the same. I was waiting, along with Sistermine, for her brother to return quickly. Together these siblings had a beautiful and wondrous relationship, but alone Sistermine seemed lost and adrift.

    This is the first book I've read by Per Petterson, but I immediately fell into the rhythm of this Norwegian author's lyrical writing. I look forward to reading more of his work.

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