Five years ago, when I started work on this story, I was curious about the Finnish population in Astoria. I wondered about their role in the fishing and logging industry. I also wondered about how the sense of Finnish identity would or would not be maintained during the 1930s and 40s, when many people felt pressure to assimilate. I wondered, too, about the stories people tell themselves and how someone might maintain multiple versions of the same story. Writing a letter about an event, for example, seems to allow for squishy self-editing, evasion, reshaping. Initially, I thought I would write about people building up one another’s wounds. I thought I would write a simple love story. The child arrived and I thought would write about joy. And then the story took a different turn and I decided to let it go where it wanted to.
Gina Ochsner, BASS 2022 Contributor Note
This could be viewed as the simplest of stories: a strange child washes ashore in an early 20th century fishing village in Oregon; a man and his sister view him as beautiful and evil, respectively; the sister must make a decision to save one of them. But there’s a lot layered into the story – Indian, Finnish, and Christian mythology, social history, nature’s capricious way, letters from Mother – that makes it hard to see it so simply. I’m a little frustrated with it because all my attempts to research it under control failed; ah, doomed by my own inclinations! So I need to keep some simplicity, while acknowledging there’s more going on underneath.
We start out with Indian legend:
In the old Clatsop story, God pinched the mud of the north Oregon shore into mountains, carved rock to jagged crags. That’s how he cut his hands and his blood stained the flats of the north plains. Every autumn, as if remembering this event, the soil north and east of Astoria pushes forth blood-bright cranberries. That’s the way Jaska heard Indian Jennie tell it, anyway. Because God suffered, those who work the north plains harvest suffer. This part Jaska could vouch for. Thirty years of hauling fishing nets had pulled his chest toward his hips and put a thick hump between his shoulders. Thirty years of work had turned his bones to chalk. That’s the reward of hard work, Mother says in her many letters, but he knows fear has stove him up as much as the work.
So Indian Jennie is the portal for Indian legend in the story. The town is populated by Finns, including our protagonists Jaska and his sister Kaari. They’re in their fifties, living together as one household since neither ever married. They and their mother, with whom they correspond, are Lutherans, which brings in the Christian elements. Bolshevism plays a role in the town, but neither Jaska nor Kaari participate; Jaska “didn’t know socialism from rheumatism,” and doesn’t have much to do with either the church or the union halls. Kaari seems to be distanced from the town, except for Indian Jennie, due to her past: as a young girl, she became pregnant out of wedlock. The baby died at one day old. The man who impregnated her later took up with Indian Jennie, then died, and Jennie has recently begun a rather severe cognitive decline. So it’s a confusing setting, people connected in atypical ways and disconnected otherwise.
I wonder if there’s some reflection of Finland in these relationships. Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia. Its language isn’t related to the Scandinavian languages, but to those used in Estonia and, strangely, Hungary. Politically, Finland has battled its border with Russia for centuries; Karelia, mentioned in the story as the Promised Land, is a section that has been variously split between the two countries. These are all peculiar relationships, perhaps reflecting Jaska and Kaari in the town.
But let’s begin the story. Jaska discovers another child in his fishing weir one day. The boy is literally stuck in the mud, and about to drown from incoming tide, but Jaska pulls him out.
Jaska figured the child to be seven maybe eight years of age. Not from these parts, he was sure of it. “How do they call you?” He asked in Swedish, English, Spanish, and Finnish. A chunk of horehound candy lured the boy into the metal wash tub. The boy squirmed beneath the pitchers of warm water Jaska poured over him, as if the fresh water were acid. “Settle down,” Jaska murmured, pouring with one hand, holding the boy in the tub with the other. Layers of bladderwrack and seaweed clung to his back, torso, and limbs. More warm water, more candy, and a good long sit before the greens peeled away and the boy beneath the mud slowly emerged. Jaska rested on his heels, blinked at the creature before him. Hard to believe this was the same child pulled up from the marl. So beautiful now to behold. A cherub, like something from a fine painting that belonged on the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral somewhere. If God existed, he existed in this boy; that’s how beautiful the child seemed to Jaska. And yet, he could not discount the otherworldly quality of his alabaster white skin, hair white as dry clouds, eyes an odd cornflower blue. Well. Did not Jonah step out of the open mouth of the whale, his skin blanched blister white? Did he not stumble upon that shore, dumbfounded and disoriented? The boy, Jaska decided, must have suffered a similar fate. We do, after all, still live in the age of miracles.
Here’s the first place my tendency to nail things down gets in the way. I’ve looked at every mention of Jonah in the Bible; there’s nothing about him being bleached white, but it’s mentioned in nearly every faith-based (as opposed to academic) commentary. It’s why the people at Nineveh listened to his warnings and reformed their ways so quickly. I don’t know where this piece came from, but there was, in the 19th century, a story about a sailor, James Bartley, who was eaten by a spermback (or a shark, the story has several versions) and emerged 36 hours later bleached white. This story has all the earmarks of a tall tale; could it be the source of the inspirational, but non-canonical, transformation of Jonah? Or is there a Biblical source I just didn’t find?
Why does it matter? It shows how mythology blends into reality, heightening the sense of the supernatural when an albino child with deformed feet shows up. It wasn’t until I read the word “selkie” in Greer’s Introduction that I realized what was being hinted at. Selkies are, from what I understand, of Celtic origin, throwing another ethnicity into the mix.
Kaari echoes something of an inverse Jonah story: instead of being bleached white, she is darkened:
In Mother’s most recent letter she made requests. Tell me the untellable story. Tell me a story that outstrips time.
She wanted a love story. She wanted joy. Those are stories Kaari can’t tell. About love she never wrote. About Bucky she never wrote. She wrote about the woods, the way they swallowed her up. The darkness brewed within them–that was her meat, her milk. Her music. Darkness, she wrote, made a clean heart in her. About her own child, who lived for only a day, she never wrote. Only Indian Jennie and Liila, the pastor’s wife, knew about the infant she put into the water down by the docks. Liila said, God understands all, but the look on her face said that’s what you get for chippy-ing around with men in the woods. And sure, she was forgiven on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday nobody wanted a thing to do with her.
This might explain Kaari’s fear of the bleached boy: he threatens her darkness, or perhaps highlights her darkness.
But let’s stay simple, because frankly, I’m tired of this story that dares me to figure out if the weir is representative of Jaska and Kaari trapped in Astoria, if the Mother of the letters is the Voice of God (God of which mythology?), if the boy is a reluctant prophet come to save them or a selkie come to curse them, if Kaari’s action is her salvation or her damnation. So let’s keep it simple: Bad things happen when the boy arrives. The weather turns nasty; people die. Maybe the weather has always been nasty and people, I’m sure, have always died, but Kaari and Jennie see it as the boy’s influence, while Jaska sees him as beautiful.
After a singular tragedy, they decide to take him to the city where someone can take charge of him, put him in an orphanage or find him a family to live with. Before that can happen, the boy again gets caught in Jaska’s fishing weir. At first he’s playing, but then begins to thrash in earnest. Jaska goes to save him and gets stuck himself. Kaari has a rope. Jaska tells her to save the boy. Whom should she save? The final paragraph gives us her decision, her reasons, and a sense of the consequences.
Anyone who wishes to expound upon the underlying motifs and symbols, please, have at it in the comments. I’d love to know.
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- Jake Weber, in his post on Workshop Heretic, likens the story to putting together IKEA furniture, and concludes: “Maybe it’s not a chair…Maybe it’s supposed to rock.” Maybe so. I give him credit for all the work he put into it, whether it’s a chair or not. And bless his heart, he even tackled the title, which I studiously ignored.
- If you’re curious about weirs, here’s a nice video that explains generally how they work.
- If you’re curious about James Bartley, Richard Woolveridge has written a good myth-busting account in Australian Geographic.
There are people who are super passionate about titles, and some will tell you that if your title appears in the story anywhere, you’re a hack. I’m more of a “just pick a title and don’t worry about it” kind of guy. This was a title from the finnickier school of title creation, and for some reason, it kept gnawing at me, so I thought I’d give it a passing try. Don’t know if I succeeded. BASS is wearing me out this year, even though I’ve mostly liked it.