To Siberia is a beautifully written book about the life of a sixty year old Danish woman and her family. Per Petterson lets this woman – we don’t even learn who she is, only that she is referred to as “Sistermine”, my sister – tell us about her life. She tells, or thinks, about her childhood in a Danish port town on the Jutland peninsula, about her grandfather, a farmer who hangs himself in a cowshed, and of the rest of her family – her mother who is a devout Christian, and her father. But most of the book focuses on memories of her older brother Jesper, to whom she had a close and special relationship – their joint memories as well as her longing for him.
Sistermine and Jesper do not get much love or affection from their mother and often silent father. They grow up together, sharing late night adventures and experiences. They grow to learn that “the world was far bigger than the town I lived in,” and they look forward to “my own great journey.” They dream and share dreams. Jesper yearns to move to the warm climate of Morocco while Sistermine has her sights set on Siberia.
However, the German occupation shatters the future they have drawn up for themselves. Jesper, who is interested in politics and has a leftist political orientation, gets involved in the German resistance movement in Denmark. Eventually he, as many other Danes and Norwegians during World War II, runs away from the Germans, to Sweden. Sistermine watches him depart in a boat.
After the war is over, she moves around in Scandinavia, seemingly looking for meaning in her life, and constantly longing for her older brother, who has gone to Morocco after the war. As he dreamed he would. But alone – without her! Sistermine will never see him again, and she never gets to see Siberia either.
Like Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia is a sparely, beautifully written and at times poetic book. Per Petterson is an excellent writer and a pleasure to read. The story is interesting and touching, and like a river, the tale sometimes moves slowly, sometimes leaps ahead. However, in my opinion, To Siberia is not quite as good as Out Stealing Horses (which was remarkable), but even so very good.