Finding Petronella

“The facts I have about Petronella’s life could fit on two pieces of paper, but has that ever been the important thing? This is what all the men who have written about her missed.”

“One step. Then: another. It felt big but also very small. Just feet on gravel, taking me away from safe and orderly Malmi, from life under a microscope, from reporters and computers, toward the thunder. This was the beginning. I didn’t look back.”

On June 16th, 2014, Jenny packed her ukulele, a waterproof notebook, a pair of shiny neon spandex pants, and her life for the next four months 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 had met the 90-year-old Petronella van der Moer in March 2013 through her friend, Petronella’s daughter, Solange. The following day she 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. Jenny’s 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 June to October of 2014, Jenny’s solo journey across Finland broke her apart and built her up, striking down what she knew and sending her end over end until she arrived, the most alive she’d ever felt, at her own two feet. She encountered a surprise at every turn. She wrote for clarity, for survival, for love, for yearning. She wrote because there was nothing else to do. She wrote even though there was everything else to do. She let the land and people settle on her soul.

Jenny’s book project, Finding Petronella, 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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