Finding Petronella

“On my back I can see the sky. The clear, sparkling blue, the rolling thunderheads, the way the two sides seem like they could fold together at the crease where I lie. I remember the gold miners, how they make coffee, how their children splash and dig, the maybe of their mornings, every time. One may think I am crazy, out here, trailing a woman’s ghost. Maybe I am. I can all but see her, the way she stands in the doorway of the old sauna at Morgamoja, her hand on the handle carved from a gnarled tree branch, her sleeves rolled up, her blue eyes challenging. The fireweed at her feet catches the late-day sun like tiny violet stars. She’s almost smiling.”

On June 16th, 2014, Jenny packed her ukulele, a waterproof notebook, and a pair of shiny neon spandex pants into a red backpack and flew to Helsinki to begin a long trek north. She was retracing the steps of a woman who in 1949 had followed her writing muse beyond the Arctic Circle, landing herself among the gold miners of Lapland where she lived until she was arrested, deported, and disappeared, leaving a growing legend in her wake. Jenny met the 89-year-old Petronella van der Moer in March 2013 and made the decision to quit her job, put dreams for a creative writing MFA on hold, and launch a Kickstarter Campaign to raise funds for her project. Her goal was simple: to write about her adventure, and in turn breathe life into Petronella’s.

Petronella van der Moer, Lemmenjoki Gold Fields, 1949

From the long, flat Finnish highway to the rolling fjelds of Lemmenjoki National Park, Finding Petronella follows Jenny’s journey as she chases a woman’s ghost into the heart of the Arctic Circle. It is an interrogation of a woman’s place in wilderness; a claiming of space.  It tells the story of two women, past and present, who chose to live out an unusual impulse, and the impact of that choice. It is an exploration of the dying culture of Lemmenjoki’s last gold miners, who live both in harmony with and opposition to the remote wilderness they call home, locked in a complicated dance between nature and machine. Finding Petronella asks questions of how we live and how we die, of women’s stories and ownership, and of what it means in today’s world—ever connected and complicated by technology, where we are taught to prioritize stability over risk; money over experience, where we are told that nature is dangerous—for a woman to put on a backpack and start walking.

The book, in progress now, will tell the story of this adventure. In the meantime, you can read blogs Jenny wrote from the road here.

Jenny O’Connell and Annukka Rantalainen, 2014

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