White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

23697987Mid-October is when I put a request in at the library for this book. It took 2.5 months to get to me and it came all the way from Ottawa. But it was worth it.

It is 1867 Finland, and the population is suffering from a severe food shortage. As a mother and her children make their way across the frozen landscape looking for a better life (or even a scrap of food), they come across a myriad of people. Some of the people are kind and generous, sharing what little they have (and they all had very little). Some are stingy and suspicious of everyone. But most fall somewhere in between. They are real. They want to help, but have so little for themselves. They want to help, but know that there are so many others who need it as well, and where do you draw the line before you have nothing left? Many are suspicious by nature, but others have been stolen from before and can’t afford to have it happen again. I couldn’t help but wonder, what would I have done?

He thinks of the woman left lying in the snowdrift. How the snow fell over her, in the end, not tenderly tucking her in, but devouring her, like a raging sea dragging a castaway into its depths.

One thing that struck me while reading this book is the strong will to survive. The mother in the story just keeps going and going, because she has no other choice. She follows the light at the end of the tunnel and hopes that it gets her where she wants to go; against all odds, with nothing in her stomach, with two children who have nothing in their stomachs, in the snow, on foot, alone.

This book is bleak, but there is hope; in humanity, and in the spring that is to come.

It does her good to hear another person speak. When she has to exert herself and concentrate on listening, she momentarily forgets the cold and the hunger. No matter what the other person is saying, as long as he is addressing her. Then she remembers that there are other people in the world, and that people still talk to each other. And one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases.

The child’s laughter ploughs a path through grey despair.

Hopeless, yes, but a chance all the same.

Other blogger reviews of White Hunger can be found here.

38 thoughts on “White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

  1. Brian says:

    This reminds me of a book about a woman who homesteaded in Saskatchewan but was abandoned by her handsome husband who sold their property and left her destitute. Unfortunately I didn’t blog it and can’t remember the title. Does anyone else know it?

  2. sharkell says:

    I have this book on my phone ready to read. I think it will be my next Peirene Press read – it sounds excellent.

      • sharkell says:

        The Mussell Feast, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Stone in a Landslide, Beside the Sea and The Blue Room. Beside the Sea is my favourite so far. Amazon Australia had a sale on Peirene books last year and I have a copy of most of them. I plan to read (savour) them slowly over time. Have you read many of them?

      • Naomi says:

        White Hunger was my first one, but it won’t be the last. I have Beside the Sea and The Looking-Glass Sisters on my list, but the others are new to me. I’ll have to check them out!

  3. JacquiWine says:

    I’m so glad you felt that this book was worth the wait. It’s such a powerful story, probably one of the most haunting in the Peirene series. I still find myself thinking of Marja and her two children three or four months down the line…

    • Naomi says:

      When I first started seeing the reviews of the Peirene books, this is the one that caught my attention, although I’m sure I will be reading some of the others as well.

  4. susanosborne55 says:

    Glad to hear that this didn’t disappoint. Odd to say this of such a harrowing book but I was struck by the beauty of the language. A triumph for the translator! I’d echo Jacqui’s comment – it’s a book that stays with you for quite some time and must have seemed all too believable in the depths of a Canadian winter.

    • Naomi says:

      It seemed so believable. I could feel the blustery wind filled with the powdery snow hitting her in the face as she walked, blowing down the neck of her clothes (which were probably not warm enough – even the down-filled parkas we wear now sometimes don’t feel warm enough).

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    I read and reviewed one of the others in this series (Peirene books are issued as trios), The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen, and enjoyed it very much. I can see the connections with this one in terms of tone and content — I’d like to read it as well.

  6. Sarah Emsley says:

    Sounds fascinating, Naomi. I hadn’t heard of it before. Interesting idea that as long as people can still talk to each other, as long as a child can find a reason to laugh, it’s possible to believe the future will bring something better.

    • Naomi says:

      And, it wasn’t really until I was writing my review that I started to wonder what I would have done. The characters seemed so real that you realize that you could very well have been one of the stingy ones not wanting to give up their last loaf of bread. I hope I wouldn’t be, but who can really blame them?

  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I think Jacqui reviewed this for Novellas in November, and I think I purchased it after reading her review. I’m looking forward to reading it, especially since you’ve “endorsed” it as well. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I did want to say more about the senator and the few other characters who were relatively well-off, and their part in the book, but I wasn’t clear enough on what I was trying to say that I just decided to cut it out and keep the parts that were the most meaningful to me. I find some books are harder to write about than others, and this was one of them.

  8. Karen says:

    This sounds fantastic, Naomi. I love when stories double up as “human studies,” if that makes sense. It’s interesting to think about all of the different reactions people have to one particular event (in this case, food shortage). I’m not sure what I would do either. I’d like to think that I’d share whatever I had. The survival aspect of this book sounds fascinating as well. Our bodies are so surprisingly fragile and resilient all at once.

    • Naomi says:

      I think one of the reasons I like survival stories is because I’m interested to know just how far we can be pushed. And, because we’re all different, we all will react differently to the same survival situation.

  9. The Cue Card says:

    Wow sounds pretty bleak. This poor woman. I haven’t heard about this book, what a survival story. As long as there is hope — I’d be interested in it.

  10. writereads says:

    That writing is absolutely beautiful! Not sure I could stand the bleakness for very long, but the writing is extremely tempting. Good to know it’s not too long :). Perhaps I’ll leave it for a spring read so that I won’t be reading about snow devouring someone in the middle of an Edmonton winter.
    Also, I’m LOVING The Outlander at the moment. -Tania

    • Naomi says:

      I do wish that I was re-reading The Outlander. I remember loving it, but have forgotten most of the reasons why. I do know I love stories about running and chasing and hiding, especially if the runner and hider is a woman. I will have to listen to that podcast for sure!
      Let me know if you decide to give White Hunger a try!

  11. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds a little too bleak for me to want to run out and pick it up, but I do love historical fiction with female protagonists. I suppose because so much of history focuses on what the men were doing, books that let me learn more about what the women were doing are some of my favorites 🙂

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