Under the North Star Review

I haven’t been blogging lately and my convenient excuse is that I signed up for Goodread’s reading challenge where you set the number of books you aim to read in a year and then read them. Because I’m ambitious and didn’t think to do the math, I decided 100 books would be a nice, round number to read during there. Then I got to it. Sometime in mid-march, I paused and realized there was no way I was going to make it since 100 books in a year means I need to finish one book every 3.5 days. I’m an avid reader, but not quite that avid.

But I have been reading some interesting books. I just finished book one in Väinö Linna’s Täällä Pohjantähden Alla (Under the North Star) and holy crap, it was good. First off, it gave me a whole lot more insight into the issues in Finnish society surrounding speaking Finnish vs. speaking Swedish. Swedish was the language of the nobility in Finland, who stayed on when Finland went from being under Sweden’s control to under Russia’s and in the late 19th century there was a huge push to make Finnish the language of public life as well because it was the language of the people, the average Joe spoke it. This creates the odd scenes where the Baron in the book tries to communicate with his tenants but he can only manage a broken Finnish compared with their fluency. Or the scene where he comes across some other gentry who are pro-Finnishicizing everything and they great him in Finnish and he has to request they speak Swedish because not only can he only manage to speak broken Finnish himself, he’s only able to understand the uneducated dialect spoken by those around him (ie, farmers and craftsmen) and not the Finnish spoken by the gentry. This alone shows us three major divisions in Finnish society: the Swedish speaking nobility vs. the pro-Finnish gentry (who also spoke Swedish, but made a point not to) vs. the average person (speaking only Finnish).

While reading, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between this book and Free Land, written by Rose Wilder Lane. Like Under the North Star, it takes place in the 1880s and tells about a pioneering young man (and his wife) setting out to carve a farm out of wilderness. But from there, the stories diverge. In Free Land, the main obstacle David faces is the weather: three years of drought after one good year threaten to drive him to bankruptcy. In Under the North Star, the main obstacle faced by Jussi and his family is the fact the don’t own the land. He’s a tenant of the parsonage and is subjected to the whims of the vicar as far as how much land he’s allowed to cultivate and how many days he, his wife, and his children are required to spend working on the vicar’s land vs their tenancy. It’s absolutely infuriating to read, listening to the vicar and his wife justify making Jussi’s plot smaller to “save him work” because they can’t find any way to live within their means. They need 3 maids, a coachman, a coach, to send their kids to private school and so on and so forth. What does Jussi need? Well, certainly not the land he literally broke his back to clear. They mistake his ability to object as a willingness to agree, although god knows if he had objected or pointed out to them all the ways they could cut back (the Koskelas lived on nothing and built up their capital), the vicar and his wife would have been outraged and chucked him out all together.

It really drove home the difference having title to your own land makes. David could kill himself clearing his quarter section and it would be is (well, after 7 years since it was a homestead…) and, if he wanted to leave, he could sell it for a bit of capital. The Koskelas couldn’t. They could farm it, but would never be able to sell it and move on to something better.

I mentioned this all to my husband and he agreed. “One thing my family always had going for it, whether it was on my mom’s side or my dad’s side, is that they owned the land they farmed. They weren’t tenants.”

I’m going to start book 2 soon, in which Finland gains independence and the tenants gain land reform and then every one decides to have a civil war.

Also interesting to note is the fact that the gentry could use property rights for them to deny property rights to others. The land their tenants live on is owned by them, it’s their property and therefore, they can do what they want with it. The tenants argue that since they work the land and have lived on it for generations, don’t they arguably have some right to it as well? Add into the fact that in many cases, the land was originally not bought by the gentry but awarded to them by a king and the whole feudal mess becomes a bit clearer. This is the sort of land reform issue that was carried out in many countries after socialists took over simply because the roots of the issue weren’t fair to begin with. You couldn’t start out as a small time farmer in BFE, Finland only one day to have some Swedish speaking dude move in, declare the King has made him a Baron over all this land and ta-da! You’re now a tenant and find that fair.

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