Print Article

The White and the Red

Written by: Inga-Britt Wik |

Mia, the daughter of a farmer, is the unifying figure in Vägen till staden (1957; The Road to the City) and Stadens bröd (1960; The City’s Bread), historical novels by Anna Bondestam (1907-1995) that describe the transition from rural to urban life in the 1890s and the changes that were decisive to women’s prospects of participating in social development. At fifteen years old, Mia is fed up with her father’s physical abuse. she is not afraid of the future. “I can take care of myself, I know I can”, she says as she leaves. She joints up with Ida, an abandoned young woman, on her way to the city; the rest of the narrative is based on the contrasts between the two protagonists, so different by nature and social status. Mia becomes a maid for a rich family but refuses to surrender to patriarchal abuse or to the servant’s ethic that is drilled into her, while Ida gives up and moves back to the countryside, where she dies the lonely death of a pauper in a crofter’s cottage.

Stadens bröd finds Mia working at a tobacco factory instead. The novel focuses on the female workers and their day-to-day lives, particularly their struggle to influence their working conditions, including annual leave. Typical of the times, Mia’s maturation process culminates in single motherhood after her husband takes off for America. But she finds her place in the turbulent transition period of the 1905 general strike – she is the one who knows what women should be demanding.

Vahter, Tyyni: Man städer för midsommaren på Heikkilä gård. 1926. Photo. Otavas billedarkiv, Helsinki

Klyftan (1946; The Chasm), Bondestam’s autobiographical novel, reaches into the most intimate corner of her life: her childhood experiences of the Finnish Civil War in Jakobstad in 1918. She was ten years old when the war started; both of her parents belonged to the worker’s association. She describes the gulf that emerged between the Red and White Guards from the child’s point of view, while the adult narrator fills in whenever necessary. One of the first events of the war shakes up the little town: seven Red Guards are executed by a firing squad and lie there for an entire day “as a warning to others”. The White Guard controls the city and fear ripples through the working-class district. The story is most powerful when it describes the way that social strife directly impacts the girl’s experience of reality. Both mother and daughter are terrified that the paterfamilias will be captured by the White Guard, and the most poignant scenes vibrate with muted pain.

Bondestam took up literature after receiving a master’s degree in Swedish and history. As was the case with many other female authors of the 1930s, her open sesame was a Nordic novel competition. Panik i Rölleby (1936; Panic in Rölleby), her first novel, was the runner-up in 1936 to Sally Salminen’s Katrina. The book is a humorous small-town chronicle of Jakobstad in the eighteenth century. Bondestam pokes fun at the citizenry, making sure that a lovely maid and a forward-looking pastor get each other at last despite the historical impossibility of their union. A heart-warming humour and a spontaneous love of storytelling has made the book a classic in Finland.

As an account of the civil war, Klyftan is a harbinger of the more open approach that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Read as a trilogy, Vägen till staden, Stadens bröd, and Klyftan are not only a journey through changing Finnish society, but an uncelebrated slice of women’s history: the lives and political education of factory workers. Lågt i tak (1943; Low Ceiling) presents Bondestam’s perspective on the emerging new society.

She was an early chronicler of the social changes that preceded the Red rebellion. Nevertheless, her books did not receive the same attention as Väinö Linna, her Finnish speaking compatriot, who won the 1963 Nordic Council Literature Prize for his trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (1959-1962; Northern Star, Eng. tr. Under the North Star). She later explained that the lack of response to her brand of socially conscious literature had convinced her to write history, which was devoted primarily to the Finland-Swedish working class movement, instead. Jakobstad, Winter 1918 (1990; Jakobstad, Winter 1918), a historical work, shed additional light on the period she had written about in Klyftan and the slow-healing psychological wounds caused by the civil war.

“She doesn’t know that thousands of other children are suffering just like her. Or that there will soon be millions of them. They have had bad luck, all these millions of children. They happened to be born in what was first called the century of the child, but turned into the century of terror.” (Klyftan)

Translated by Ken Schubert