When Jenny O’Connell met 89-year-old Sylvia Antoinette Petronella van der Moer in a small town outside of San Francisco in the spring of 2013, van der Moer began the conversation with four words: “I walked to Lapland.”
Eighty-nine years old and on her deathbed, van der Moer—known in Finland as “Petronella”—had sailed to Finland in 1949 after WWII with dreams of becoming a writer. Bold, charismatic, and curious, she interviewed prominent members of Finnish society, penetrating the tight circle of Helsinki’s wealthy elite until she ran out of money and ditched her hotel bills, fleeing north to Lapland to escape arrest. There, she hiked over 116 kilometers into the Lemmenjoki gold fields, where she lived in wilderness with a reclusive, entrenched community of gold miners until she was arrested three months later, put on trial, and deported, never to be seen again. Her puzzling absence captured the Finnish imagination, and over time she grew into a legend: a trickster in the south, her small crime clashing with Finnish morality in national newspaper headlines; a folk hero in the north, loved and longed for, taken too soon. She became the subject of multiple books, a musical, the name of a street in the Lappish town of Inari, a restaurant, a song. Two hills in Lemmenjoki are named after her breasts. The modern-day gold miners still tell her stories. More than 70 years later, she continues to be a figure of great mystery and renown.
Captivated by those first words, O’Connell—drawn by the clarity and power she felt in wild places and the bold nature of Petronella’s commitment to forging her own path—quit her job as an outdoor guide and set out in June of 2014 to follow Petronella’s footsteps across Finland. In Finding Petronella, O’Connell takes us on a bighearted coming-of-age journey—rich and strange, daring, and largely unplanned—as she interrogates her fear on the trail, carves out clearer space for women in wilderness, and searches with humor and sharp insight for that which brings her alive. The result is a guide to following one’s inner compass, and to summoning the courage to push beyond the boundaries created for us, as well as those we create for ourselves. Every chapter rings with the question at the core of O’Connell’s quest: What if we lived as Petronella did—life in one hand, death in the other? What would we do with that knowledge?
Who could we become?
Jenny O’Connell & Annukka Rantalainen, Finding Petronella Trek 2014