Finding Petronella

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. 

Petronella van der Moer, Lemmenjoki 1949

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. Intimately told, Finding Petronella is a bighearted coming-of-age story that traces O’Connell’s quest to interrogate fear on the trail, reinvent her relationship to risk, carve out better space for women in wilderness, and search 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.

There has never been a more important time to reimagine our relationship with ourselves, and with the earth. To take bold risks. To look up from our screens and schedules and pay attention to the natural world around us. There’s never been a more important time to remember we don’t get to live on this planet for long. That a woman has one life and how she shapes it—the contours it takes, the miles she travels—is her choice to make alone. There’s never been a more important time to listen to the call of who we are, and to move toward who we are meant to be.

We are all so much wilder than we’re made to believe. 


Jenny O’Connell & Annukka Rantalainen, Finding Petronella Trek 2014


2 responses to “Finding Petronella”

  1. […] Jenny O’Connell‘s (Creative Nonfiction, S’17) recent tribute to the late, great Ryan West—which doubles as an ode to the ultimate frisbee community—was published in Ultiworld magazine. Her essay “Valley of the Bulls” won the 2019 Appalachia Journal Humor in the Wild Contest, and is now available in print. An outdoor contributor for Maine Magazine, Jenny’s profile on camp owner and adventurer Chloë Rowse was published in March, and she has a forthcoming feature on ice climbing in Maine later this year. In April, Jenny signed with agents Jamie Chambliss and Steve Troha of Folio Literary Management, who will represent her book project, Finding Petronella.  […]

  2. […] might have caused loss of life along its supply chain. The dialogue will be enhanced by Jenny’s own 2014 solo trek across Finland (the subject of her current book project and Stonecoast thesis) following the footsteps of a female […]

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