Bibliophile | ‘The Islands’ explores a Finnish experience down under

The Islands
by Emily Brugman
Allen & Unwin

The Abrolhos Islands were a day’s boat ride west of the Western Australian mainland when Finnish migrant Onni Saari went there in search of his brother Nalle who had gone missing in a storm in 1960. Onni didn’t find his brother but he did find a rhythm of life on Rat Island that suited him, away from the dusty mainland, and he brought his wife Alva to join him.

The decade after the Second World War threw Finland into the depths of a depression and posters advertised for young men to come to Australia, or the ‘sunnyside’. By the mid-fifties, five Finnish migrants and one Latvian migrant had established rough camps on the island and made their livings by catching crayfish.

There was one other family on the harsh, remote island when Onni took over his brother’s fishing lease and the cray season only lasted for six months each year, with the other six months being spent in Geraldton. After his daughter was born, Alva and Hilda spent more time in Geraldton until Onni decided to give up crayfishing and they went in search of other opportunities.

As the wind howled and storms came out of nowhere, ghosts could sometimes be seen. Just to the north of Rat Island, lay the wreck of the Batavia. The Dutch merchant ship that was taking gold and jewels to Indonesia before it went off course and was wrecked on the reefs. Discovered in 1963 by a crayfisherman, the locals knew about it before then, as well as the terrible aftermath of carnage that followed.

Author Emily Brugman is the granddaughter of Finnish-Australian man Auno (Hermanni) Talviharju, who lived and fished the Abrolhos Islands with his family from 1959 to 1972. Although a fictional account, the book captures the essence of a migratory path which many Finnish people took in the mid-20th century and which, given the relatively small size of the community, is not well known to many other Australians.

Her narrative of lives long lost is very lyrical as tides wax and wane, paralleling the lives that ebb and flow and have to weather storms. Continually referring to the sayings from their homeland, there is a strong sense of community and knowledge that chance can blow you about like a variable north wind.

Lezly Herbert

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