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To Siberia: A Novel

To Siberia: A Novel

3.4 11
by Per Petterson, Anne Born

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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


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 Per Petterson's 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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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To Siberia

By Per Petterson, Anne Born

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1996 Forlaget Oktober A.S., Oslo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-001-7


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.

"I'm freezing."

"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.

Meet the Author

Per Petterson is the author of books including In the Wake, I Curse the River of Time, and Out Stealing Horses, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Norwegian Booksellers' Prize. The New York Times Book Review named it one of the 10 best books of the year. A former bookseller, Petterson lives in Oslo, Norway.

Per Petterson is the author of books including In the Wake, To Siberia, and I Curse the River of Time. Out Stealing Horses has won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Norwegian Booksellers' Prize. The New York Times Book Review named it one of the 10 best books of the year. A former bookseller, Petterson lives in Oslo, Norway.

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To Siberia 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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Mitakpa More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SqueakyChu More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago