Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

Deep in the Forest – Estonian Fairy Tales

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I have recently been given a copy of this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is brand new (printed in English by Varrak Publishers Ltd in 2018) although it has an interesting story as to how it came about. What was almost this collection was originally put together by Risto Järv for a French publication “L’esprit de la forêt et autres contes estoniens” (The spirit of the forest and other Estonian tales) published by Éditions Corti in 2011, and was volume 46 of their Collection Merveilleux (Marvellous Collection) a series of books of folk tales and others legends from around the world. This French collection led to Varrak wanting to produce an edition in Estonian and whilst revising the book for this version some tales were dropped and others added to bring the total to one hundred. The Estonian book came out in 2015 with the title “Metsavaimu heategu. Sada eesti muinasjuttu metsast ja meist” (The Forest Spirit’s Deed. One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales about the Forest and Us). The English edition I have been reading is basically the same as the Estonian although the order of the tales has been slightly altered.

The book is split into ten sections each of ten tales with a short introduction to each section providing some background to the stories you are about to read, this is especially important for non-Estonian readers as some understanding is needed as to the deep love they have of the forests of their country and the structure of the tales that have grown up around them featuring regular animal characters of bear, wolf, fox, hare and mouse all of whom can talk amongst themselves and also to those people who are willing to listen. Each of the animals have specific characteristics for example the fox is normally clever and deceitful but can also be fooled, the wolf on the other hand is not very clever and will fall for most ruses. Hare is often frightened by events and looks for others of his kind to shelter, bear is strong but like wolf not the brightest creature in the forest and can be persuaded to use his strength even if it will ultimately work against him. There are also numerous little old men and inhabitants of out of the way cottages who if they decide to help should certainly be listened to carefully because half the time they are probably forest sprites of some variety but, if you are very unlucky or unwary, could also be trying to trap you or even worse they could be Vanapagan himself.

Vanapagan is the most difficult to understand regular character in these tales for non-Estonians. He represents the devil but not in a way that would be recognised by most people outside Estonia, he is sometimes more of an annoyance than particularly evil and he can usually be outwitted with a bit of intelligent thinking. Most of the tales featuring him involve the human protagonist striking a deal with Vanapagan for some sort of time limited agreement. Often the humans realise that they are dealing with Vanapagan from the first but reckon to trick him out of completing the bargain and taking them to hell in the end. This they usually manage often with the assistance of one of the little old men that seem to always appear in the forest at times of need. If they don’t recognise Vanapagan then another character (either animal or human) that has fallen under his control will usually tell them and often suggest ways that they can alter their fate by escaping.

The book draws on a huge back catalogue of folk and fairy tales, in the Estonian Literary Museums folkloric archives alone there are roughly 15,000 fairy and folk tales which is the equivalent of one for every thousand people in the country. Most of the ones included in the book were recorded in the 1890’s but some were written down in this form within the last few years. Most of them are very short, just two or three pages long but there are a few longer ones and the selection tries to cover the major thematic groups. The ten sections are:

  • Setting out into the Forest
  • Creation Tales
  • Animals and Stories
  • Work and Wisdom
  • Men and Women
  • Unexpected Encounters
  • Orphans and Parental Mercy
  • Truth and Justice
  • Countering Vanapagan
  • Emerging from the Forest

As you can see the book is top and tailed by going in and eventually coming out of the forest which symbolises the whole Estonian tales structure that all the magical, strange and terrible things happen in the forest and the world outside of this magical place is largely unimportant and certainly far less interesting. The creation tales included are not ‘world tales’ as you might expect if you have read other mythologies but more like Kipling’s Just So stories so we discover ‘why aspen leaves flutter’, ‘how the cuckoo came to be’ and ‘why the tip of Fox’s tail is white’ amongst other things. Animals and Stories is largely about the main animal characters of the legends, whilst Work and Wisdom introduce us to morality tales usually where a character doesn’t do what they have been told is the correct way to behave and subsequently reaps the consequences.

The tales under the category of Men and Women are largely not flattering to either party but especially not the women who tend to be lazy or bad tempered or both and in their ill humour end up ruining the gains that had been made by magic or encounters with forest sprites by their menfolk. Unexpected Encounters include stories of meeting with both magical characters and in one case King Peter I of Russia that transform the lives of the protagonists. Orphans and Parental Mercy takes us away to something more akin to the dark original versions of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales where orphans strive to rise from their misfortune or even those of Charles Perrault a century earlier. What you never get is the more child friendly style of somebody like Hans Christian Anderson, Estonian fairy tales should come with an Parental Guidance rating like films certainly when you hit Truth and Justice because the justice meted out can definitely be harsh. Countering Vanapagan is as the title suggests a group of tales where the hero of the story defeats Vanapagan with trickery often by successfully twisting the agreement between them to breaking point.

The folkloric traditions in Estonia are very important to the people there, who still have a strong link both to their forests and their mythologies, more so than in any other European country I have visited. Spending time in the countryside is ingrained in the Estonian people in a very spiritual way, being there within their woods and forests is good not just for the body but for the mind as well and most of the population will escape from the confines of the towns and cities as often as they can. As an outsider I can only get an impression of this deep love of their country but it is a powerful feeling and if you are lucky enough to be in the woods with Estonians then you can share it with them even if only briefly.