At the launch for SILENCES: A NOVEL OF THE 1918 FINNISH CIVIL WAR, I mentioned my father and my mother. Here's part of the story I told then, which also explains, in part, why I wrote the novel.
One day--probably on a Sunday afternoon in the summer, in what could have been 1955 but may have been a couple of years before that--my father and I were sitting on the front steps of the house. I had been playing war with my friends. Some of their fathers had served in World War II, and I wondered if my father had, too.
So I asked: "Were you ever in a war?"
To understand the significance of the question, you have to know that my parents never lied to me. To them, if a child asked a question, the parent must give a truthful answer. No lies, no dissembling, no "ask me later."
My father hesitated, then he said, "Yes, but it was not the Second World War. It was another war." He seemed tense.
I tried again. "What war was it?"
He said, "It was in Finland. The same time as World War I, but it was not that war."
"You were a soldier?"
"I was in the artillery."
"Who were you fighting?"
"Did you kill anyone?"
"I don't know."
"We didn't see where the shells landed."
This is where my recollection of the incident ends. I know that at some point I was back in our house, and my mother was telling me that I shouldn't ask my father about the war because it upset him.
My father would have been 18 when the Finnish Civil War began. He likely fought in it on the White side. His younger brother, Elmer, would have been about 15. I have a picture of Elmer in a military uniform, wearing a white armband. He might have been in the war as well--or maybe not. I may have been told by my mother that Elmer had to be cared for by his mother because after the war "his mind was not right."
When I began looking into the Finnish Civil War, I discovered that an artillery school had been organized in Jacobstad early in the war, just a few kilometres from my father's home. Pictures of the school are available online, with men milling about, in the snow. Whenever I look at it, I try to see if one of them looks like my father. But I can't see him.
And, of course, my father is no longer around to ask.
I wrote this book, in part, because of that conversation with my father. Because he didn't want to talk about the war--understandably. But it was part of his experience, and it was important in his life, and that made it important to me.