Communist Estonia, 1941. As the Allies and the Axis clash in battle, two Estonian cousins are fleeing from the Red Army: Roland, a loyal freedom fighter, and Edgar, an opportunistic mercenary. When the Nazis take control of the country, Roland goes into hiding. Edgar abandons his wife, Juudit, and transforms himself into a loyal supporter of Hitler’s regime.
Flash forward to 1963: Estonia is back under communist control behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar has taken on yet another identity as a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past and maintain his connections to power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland and Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth. In a fast-paced page-turner that switches between these two time periods, Sofi Oksanen brings to life an unforgettable story of deception, surveillance, passion, and betrayal.
About the Author
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Read an Excerpt
Western Estonia, Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet Union
We went to Rosalie’s grave one last time and placed some wild- flowers on the grassy moonlit mound. We were silent for a moment with the blooms between us. I didn’t want to let Juudit go, which is why I said out loud what a person shouldn’t say in that situation:
“We’ll never see each other again.”
I could hear the gravel in my voice, and it brought a gleam of water to her eyes, that gleam that had often knocked me off balance, welling up and sending my rational mind lightly afloat, like a bark boat. Rocking on a stream that flowed from her eyes. Maybe I spoke bluntly to dull my own pain, maybe I just wanted to be cruel so that when she’d left she could curse me and my callousness, or maybe I yearned for some final declaration, for her to say she didn’t want to leave. I was still uncertain of the movements of her heart, even after all we’d been through together.
“You regret bringing me here,” Juudit whispered.
I was startled by her perceptiveness, rubbed my neck in embarrassment. She’d given me a haircut just that evening, and it itched where the hair had fallen down inside my collar.
“It’s all right. I understand,” she said.
I could have contradicted her, but I didn’t, although she hadn’t been a burden. The men had insinuated otherwise. But I had to bring her to the safety of the forest when I heard that she’d had to flee from Tallinn. The Armses’ farm wasn’t a safe place for us with the Russians advancing. The forest was better. She’d been like an injured bird in the palm of my hand, weakened, her nerves feverish for weeks. When our medic was killed in combat, the men finally let Mrs. Vaik come to help us, us and Juudit. I had succeeded in rescuing her one more time, but once she stepped out onto the road that loomed ahead of us, I wouldn’t be able to protect her anymore. The men were right, though—women and children belonged at home. Juudit had to go back to town. The noose around us was tightening and the safety of the forest was melting away. I watched her face out of the corner of my eye. Her gaze had turned to the road that she would leave by; her mouth was open, she was gulping the air with all her strength, and the feel of her breath threatened to undermine my resolve.
“It’s best this way,” I said. “Best for all of us. Go back to the life you left behind.”
“It’s not the same anymore. It never will be.”
Excerpted from When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen. Copyright © 2015 by Sofi Oksanen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of When the Doves Disappeared, the riveting new novel by Sofi Oksanen.
1. Why might the title When the Doves Disappeared have been chosen for this novel? In addition to the phrase’s literal meaning, what major themes of the novel does it suggest?
2. Consider the structure of the novel. The story oscillates between the Estonia of the 1940s and the Estonia of the 1960s. Likewise, narrative voice and point of view also shift from chapter to chapter. What major themes of the book does this organization of the text help to highlight and support? Alternatively, how might your interpretation of the book have differed if the story had been laid out in a linear fashion or presented with only one narrative voice throughout?
3. Evaluate the genre. Should When the Doves Disappeared be considered a work of historical scholarship or is it more aptly categorized as historical fiction? What is the difference between the two genres? In your opinion, which genre is more effective in presenting historical issues to a general public?
4. Edgar’s allegiance shifts several times throughout the book. While his story is central to the novel, he is not the only character whose allegiance wavers. Roland observes: “When liberation finally arrives, everyone will suddenly be a patriot” (219). Where do you find examples of shifting allegiance in the text? To whom do the characters show allegiance, and what motivates them in this regard? Are you sympathetic to their choices? Why or why not? Does Oksanen ultimately suggest to whom one’s greatest allegiance should be given?
5. The novel features Juudit’s complicated relationships with several men. Although she is married to Edgar, she falls in love with the German Hellmuth. She also has a relationship with Roland. Are you sympathetic to her decisions when it comes to love and romance? Of Roland, she wonders, Didn’t he understand that not everyone could find love through honorable means? (153)? Do you agree with her? When considered collectively, what do her relationships with these men seem to suggest about love, desire, and human nature?
6. How does the character Hellmuth contribute to or otherwise defy stereotype? Can he be identified as a “good” or “bad” character by the story’s end? Why might Oksanen have portrayed him in this way?
7. Are there any examples of heroes or heroism in the novel? Would you say that any of the characters remain in good moral standing at the book’s conclusion? If so, how do they manage to accomplish this? What values do they seem to possess that the others do not? Does this allow us to come to some general consensus about what makes a person good or heroic?
8. By the story’s end, does Oksanen provide us with a clear sense of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the story—or who is “good” and who is “bad”? What does the book seem to reveal about ethics and the matter of good and evil? Can we draw any conclusions at the book’s end about what it ultimately means to be “good” or “right,” or are “good” and “right” always negotiable and contingent?
9. The story presents characters faced with stark ethical dilemmas, but what does the book seem to suggest about the issue of complicity? Consider some examples of characters who become guilty through their complicity. Does Oksanen seem to generate sympathy for these characters or does she seem to want her readers to consider these instances more critically—even condemningly?
10. Consider representations of faith in the novel. Do the characters find any comfort in religious faith? Why or why not? In addition to examples of traditional religious faith, what role does superstition play in the story? How is the issue of faith complicated by historical circumstances and the political atmosphere?
11. There are many examples of lying and betrayal throughout the story. Why do the characters lie to or betray those around them? What impact do these lies and betrayals have on their lives? Do you believe that any of the lies or betrayals were justified? If so, why?
12. Many of the characters in Oksanen’s novel are writers. Roland writes in his journal. Edgar becomes consumed with the task of writing a historical textbook. Dog Ear writes poetry. What messages does the book contain about the written word? What messages does the novel impart about propaganda and the presentation of historical fact? What does it seem to suggest about the way we write and read—or should write and read—historical texts?
13. How do the characters respond to Rosalie’s death? Is her family’s response to her death and the details of her burial understandable or shocking? What do you think ultimately determines each character’s response to her demise? Do the true circumstances of Rosalie’s death ever come to light? If so, to whom are they revealed?
14. What does the book tell us about truth and authenticity? Does the story contain a reliable narrator? If so, how do we know this? What makes a narrator reliable? Conversely, what allows us to recognize an unreliable narrator?
15. As Edgar writes his textbook, he muses that emotion is "stronger than reason” (125). Does this seem to hold true when considering the various characters in the novel? Does his statement hold any truth beyond the bounds of the novel? Explain.
16. The unhappy marriage between Edgar and Juudit exposes cultural norms and reveals prevalent notions about what a healthy person is and is not. What does this relationship reveal about contemporary views of mental illness? Likewise, what does it reveal about cultural expectations regarding sexuality?
17. Are any examples of hope presented throughout the story? If so, what gives the characters hope? Does the conclusion of the book contain a hopeful message? What message or messages does the book ultimately contain about the endurance—or frailty—of the human spirit?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Started out interestingly but the shifting time line got confusing and the characters were never really fully developed. You get the basic 20th century history of the country, but it feels like this could have been a much better book.
If you have read Purge then get ready for this next level. The inner emotional life of people under a tyrannical government is never drawn so well as by Oksanen. This book is one you can sink into and it's flavor lingers on your mind for years. Her books are the kinds of books that change you in beautiful ways, even though they are about terrible things.