Strangers in a Strange Land by John B. Simon (2019. Hamilton. ISBN 978-0-7618-7149-1)
I had never heard of this author or this title until I found myself invited to be part of a panel at this year’s Finn Fest in my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. I did a quick Google of my other panelist and the moderator and that’s how I came to know this book. John B. Simon and I will be sharing our experiences regarding Finnish and Finnish American fiction in Duluth at the DECC on July 28 at 10:30. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Suzanne Matson, Finlandia National Foundation’s Lecturer of the Year for 2023. I’m humbled to be in such company. But being asked to participate made me want to know and understand Mr. Simon’s work, which includes this title. So I ordered a copy of Strangers and dug in.
Three young Jews, Benjamin, David, and Rachel, all full citizens of Finland at the beginning of the Winter War, form the key characters for the fictional portions of what Finland’s Jews experienced during the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War, spanning 1939-1944. I say fictional portions because the format of this book is not simply another war novel. Interspaced with Simon’s depictions of the day-to-day lives, loves, travails, and successes of the three fictional characters (and their families) is a non-fiction historical narrative that educates the reader, in a very flawless and succinct way, about the Jews of Finland: their history, struggles, and enduring legacy. Never more than a few thousand souls, it would be wrong to judge the importance of a religious minority such as the Jews of Finland based upon size alone. This is especially the case when, as Simon portrays things, Finland’s Jews appear to be pawns in a tripartite political game of chicken between Finland, its traditional backer, Germany, and its former imperial master, Russia in the guise of the Soviet Union.
At first, as I struggled to get my bearings in this unusual book, I found myself questioning the author’s artistic choice, to create a hybrid of story and history, rather than a book that was one or the other. But as the narrative of the non-fiction unfolded and the lives of the three protagonists came clearer into focus in relation to events being depicted, I thought, By Jove, he’s done it! What was very interesting to me, as a writer, was the fact that many aspects of my own historical novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, are set in the same time frame as this work and cover much of the same ground, including the choices made by Finland and Estonia before and during the wars depicted, as well as the fate of eight unfortunate, foreign Jews who were dispatched from Finland to the Gestapo. We are vastly different writers and yet, I came to respect Mr. Simon’s retelling of that story in ways that I had not expected.
If you are interested in history, Judaica, Finnish history, or the less-well-known aspects of WW2, and are also a fan of well-drawn characters and fictional narratives, you will like this book. I certainly did. I look forward to meeting the author and trading stories about writing fictional accounts of Finns and their history.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.