“I Didn’t Know We Could Do Those Things: The Parallel Universe of Deadwind” by Rachel Keranen

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “I Didn’t Know We Could Do Those Things: The Parallel Universe of Deadwind” by Rachel Keranen depicts the awe and illumination the author experiences upon observing that the Finns of her ancestral country live lives so vastly different from the manner in which she grew up.

I Didn’t Know We Could Do Those Things:

The Parallel Universe of Deadwind

There’s a Finnish detective show on Netflix called Deadwind that I like, in part because it transports me back to Helsinki and its ethereal light and in part because it’s one of those detective shows that favors quiet problem-solving over violence and gore. The lead actress, Pihla Viitala’s, furrowed brow does much of the talking, and audiences must fill in what’s going on in the dark shadows of her eyes. I find it easy to intuit what she must be thinking—the screenwriters give enough clues that you can puzzle out the whodunit along with her. Also, I recognize that look. It’s the same dark furrow my own face gets when I’m thinking.

Viitala, who plays the lead role of detective Sofia Karppi, and I are by no means doppelgängers. She’s a few inches taller and a few sizes slimmer. Her face has more delicate angles, where mine is rounded; her eyes are brown while mine are green. But we have the same bone structure around our eyes, the same brows, the same jawline, and I’m surprised each time I see these flashes of my own reflection on the screen.

Even more than I see myself in Karppi, I see people I know in the supporting roles. The detective JP is a dead ringer for my older sister’s best friend. A teenage ferry worker looks so much like my niece that I take a screen capture to marvel over later. The show’s mayor of Helsinki looks like my older sisters, with their freckles and sharp chins. A clean-energy magnate and suspected murderer from season one is a dapper twin of my brother-in-law.

The Finnish gene pool is limited. The nation is separated from the other Nordic nations by language root, culture, and the Gulf of Bothnia, and from its eastern neighbor, Russia, by a history of oppression, land grabs, and war. My paternal and maternal lines immigrated from different regions of Finland at different times to different American states, and still, my parents are fifth cousins, according to 23andme. My sister, a doctor, assures me this doesn’t necessarily mean that our parents are fifth cousins, but only that they share as much DNA as fifth cousins generally do. We didn’t mix it up in the United States, either, at least not for those of us who grew up in pietist Finnish Lutheran churches, which strongly discourage marrying outside the faith. When the faith is tied to the Finnish community, the community stays Finnish.

It’s not actually surprising, given all this, that I see bits of my family and broader Finnish American community in the people who make up this detective show or in the web comedy series Luottomies or in the bleak comedies of Aki Kaurismäki. There is a Finnish look, or a handful of them, and landing in Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport always feels like landing at a family reunion. But what is most notable is how strange it is to see someone who looks like me solve murders, or someone with my sister’s face lead a capitol city.

I didn’t know we could do those things, a little voice keeps whispering.

***

The Laestadian churches—which began nearly two centuries ago as a revival movement in Finland led by Lars Levi Laestadius—and the many splits and branches that exist today in both Finland and the United States are defined first by being made up almost exclusively of Finns and second for eschewing birth control, thus leading to entire communities in Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and northwestern Finland where fourteen-passenger vans are standard family vehicles. Even then, some kids have to ride to church in an older sibling’s car because family sizes range up into the high teens. Mine has just nine, still an unwieldy lot, but not to the extremes that my cousins have.

Laestadian church members generally don’t drink, dance, watch television or movies, or marry outside of the church. The other defining characteristics vary slightly by sub-denomination, including whether or not popular music is allowed, whether or not kids can play team sports, whether or not members wear makeup or modify their body in any way. My family’s particular branch allowed popular music and team sports but had a hard no on makeup and body modifications.

These are the obvious demarcations. The rules, the unwritten codes of conduct that are strictly enforced through cold shoulders when you disobey, derision if you leave the faith. But there is a subtler and even more powerful, more insidious difference between the church and mainstream culture that I had never fully processed—the limited range of possibility for what you could become.

There’s no official tally, but a quick list of common occupations for men in the church of my youth includes construction worker, mechanic, farmer, North Dakota oil-field worker, Alaskan dock worker, insurance salesperson, the odd small business owner, engineer.  The education-oriented men tend to become engineers—most study at Michigan Tech, an engineering school in the heart of Finn country in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My father and brother received their engineering degrees at Michigan Tech. The common occupations for women include housewife, cashier, nurse. The academically inclined women choose nursing, a job centered on caring for other people and which provides flexibility to pause that work to care for their families.

It’s impossible for women to plan on full careers when they know they will be having as many children as nature provides in their fertile lifespan. Many study nursing before getting married, getting a quick LPN or an RN and work until they have kids. It’s a well-worn groove; going to nursing school raises no eyebrows. It’s even encouraged—your husband could die, and then what would you do? No more babies on the way to keep you home, and no potential to support the ones you already have.

There’s also the odd teacher or accountant, on both the men and women’s side. My brother’s friend is a county police officer. A classmate’s family owns a sauna company that grew into the largest sauna company in the country, and they’re doing better than most. But that’s about it.

My family operates within and in proximity to these circumscribed roles. We have an engineer, a nurse, an accountant, a teacher. We have a state-government employee. We also have two doctors, a lawyer, and a geophysicist. Then there’s me, a writer. The focus on education makes my family an oddity in the church—the women who studied medicine, the woman who learned to argue, the woman who learned to ask questions and investigate assumptions. The woman who writes about what she sees and is always poking at the painful spots. Some are still members of the church, with complicated strings attached. Some of us severed those strings long ago.

Even so, even so. I have always been proud of my family, the advanced degrees, the career successes, but there is a quiet orderliness to our chosen occupations. Watching Deadwind, I realize there’s so much else out there that we could have been deciding to be.

I know thousands of Finns in Minnesota and Michigan, either because they are among my many cousins or because they are members of the church. I don’t know a single detective, mayor, politician, or tech executive, the roles our lookalikes play in Deadwind. I don’t know any actors, either, for that matter, or cinematographers, or directors, or producers. Acting was explicitly off limits in my community because of the wanton lifestyle actors were said to lead, and for the sinful content in the shows and films they made, which were also off limits. But nobody said we couldn’t be detectives, or mayors, or politicians, or tech executives. It just didn’t happen.

I imagine those roles would have violated a common refrain I heard: “In the world but not of the world.” It meant we existed in the world, and we couldn’t escape that. We went to public schools, did or did not play organized sports, and patronized businesses that connected to outside forces. But we didn’t fully join that world, either. We kept to ourselves, both in geographic scope—staying close to home in our rural communities—and psychologically. Why invest significant energy solving crimes that worldly people committed? Why run for office in an institution that depended on appealing to and then representing the world? How could you throw yourself headlong into a career of ups and downs—art, politics, entrepreneurship—when your family needed a reliable income and all hands on deck?

***

In Deadwind, there are two central characters, Karppi and her partner, Sakari Nurmi. Nurmi is, in season one, a well-dressed man with a taste for cocaine who recently transferred from financial crimes to homicide. Karppi, a homicide veteran and recent widow, is scornful of this interloper and his ideas and his determination to be included. Slowly over the first season he proves his loyalty and utility. He ditches the coke. He has good ideas, sometimes. He can keep up. He does it all while looking haunted and sexy in a very Finnish way.

There are moments, in season one, where you wonder if Karppi and Nurmi will fall in love. It seems like the Hollywood ending. They are young, single, attractive, and in constant close proximity. And it does seem like they are, slowly, falling in love. But over the course of season one and into season two, at which point Karppi has fully accepted Nurmi as a detective partner, there are moments when it almost happens but doesn’t. A drunken kiss in season one. A second kiss in a moment of weakness in season two. The drunken kiss is completely ignored the next day—she was drunk after all, better not to mention it when everyone is back in their right minds. When Nurmi kisses Karppi in the middle of season two, she says nothing except that she will walk home instead of riding with him in his BMW vintage roadster. It’s a long walk; it takes hours, the winter wind whipping against her small frame. When Karppi moves to embrace him in the penultimate episode of season two, he ducks and says he’s not feeling well, and she should go on to work without him. The season ends with an exchange of silent, pained gazes from twenty yards apart, and then, a silent, pained departure.

Even as the characters live lives foreign to me, this, too, I recognize, as clearly as the facial features. The continual confluence of love with pain. The silent avoidance. The stubborn refusal to acknowledge a feeling, a preference for continuing on as things were rather than opening up to the possibility of something new. The fear of intimacy. I’ve responded the same way in almost every relationship I’ve had, jackrabbiting out of a room when a moment began to crackle with sexual tension, scheduling work shifts on the weekend during college, so I didn’t have to explain my absence from church, watching friendships fade because it was harder to ask what had changed.

I can’t claim to reduce Finns, in Finland or in America, to a single descriptor, but if I were asked, I would present the image of Karppi walking home alone for miles along the water’s edge, a winter wind whipping off the Gulf of Finland, because she does not want to talk about feelings.

I think they each know that they love the other—when Nurmi is waterboarded by a psychopath, Karppi stays the night at his apartment and figures out how to work his fancy espresso machine so she can make him a coffee in the morning, and when Karppi is howling drunk with grief over the death of her mother, Nurmi sleeps on her couch—but they’re afraid to discuss it, afraid to name what is there and move forward with it.

I so badly want them to open up and say that this is something special and real, and that they have been hurt before, and that they will be kind to each other’s broken places. Really, I want to trade places with Karppi and be able to do the same with Nurmi, or with my own version of Nurmi. It is strange to see yourself so clearly in someone else and know what you’d advise them to do, and to want to do it, and be completely unable.

This is what I like about watching Finnish television and movies. The characters’ psychologies and decisions feel so much more real to me than anything that comes out of Hollywood, where the characters are filled with dramatic outbursts and outpourings of passion. In Finnish cinema, and in my own home, there is silence and distance and fragmented connections. I rarely feel, when watching a Hollywood film, like I can take the scenario depicted and apply it to my own situation. Perhaps that’s not the goal of Hollywood. It’s fantastic and escapist, or artistic and escapist, but it is not real; at least it is not real to me.

It is disconcerting, then, to feel so akin to these characters and yet so very truncated in comparison.

***

What is the impact of a narrowed scope of being? In my family’s church, their specific congregation in rural Minnesota, there are roughly one thousand members. Certainly, among those thousand people, not all aspire to blue-collar jobs or lifetimes as unpaid, overworked housewives or even to work as engineers or nurses.

What of the percentage that, if not for the church, would have run for mayor? Trained to be a detective? Moved to the city to make it as an actor? Can they be happy in the small slice of life allotted to them? Perhaps they think there is something wrong with them, that they are not happy in the groove they have followed, unaware that it is only because the groove exists that they are on the track in the first place.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps if you subscribe to the church’s doctrine, you inherently only want what has been deemed possible. Perhaps it’s only me, a writer in New York, who looks back at them and thinks, You must be miserable in the lives I didn’t want.

But I don’t think I am entirely wrong. There was a family in the church whose mom had repeated nervous breakdowns. One year when she was in the hospital, my mom bought and wrapped Christmas presents for the kids and dropped them off so they had something to open that year. A woman I knew had severe depression, but she couldn’t take her meds when she was pregnant, and she was almost always pregnant. I wonder if my own mother or father would have had nine children given their druthers. I imagine if they had had two, maybe three, they would have had more moments for themselves instead of working multiple jobs to make ends meet for many years, my dad selling insurance in addition to working as an engineer; my mother working nights so she could be home with us during the day. I often wish that they had just a few kids and easier lives, though of course then I would not exist.

I have long believed that the adults in the church were constrained by and often suffering from the Bible’s command to bear fruit. But this breadth of what can be imagined, of what is possible in a career or an individual life, has been a slower realization that has come only from my own trips to Helsinki, where I’ve seen people who look like me in the full range of daily life—and from watching movies of people in Helsinki, which has the double effect of showing Finns in a wide range of careers, played by Finns engaged in a career that was specifically banned in my childhood.

***

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was very young, before I understood the concept of careers, I just wrote—mostly bad rhyming poems that I illustrated in heavy crayon. When I grew old enough to read books with author photos and biographies on the back, I realized that some spent their life immersed in words, which was the best life I could imagine.

My parents did not dissuade me from this dream. They both love to read. I could write the next A Man Called Ove and my mother would have been thrilled. I wish I could write the next A Man Called Ove. But when I said I wanted to live somewhere different—New York, London, Los Angeles—my mother said, “But then you are so far from the church.”

But I already was far, far away.

***

It is always winter in Deadwind. The light is bleak, often just a pale yellow or salmon-pink gleam between streaks of gray on the horizon as Karppi trudges through snow in her oversized black parka to a crime scene, or races to rescue an about-to-be-murdered victim in Nurmi’s BMW, which she is always borrowing for whatever reason. As I watch, I wonder how the roadster doesn’t spin out on the slick winter roads. I once had a little black car, too—no BMW, but sporty enough, and I once spun a full 180 when trying to stop at a Minneapolis stoplight because my car was too light to hold to the icy roads, and I got stuck turning into an unplowed driveway because my chassis was too low-slung to clear the snow. I guess there is a degree of magic in Finnish cinema,—or at least really good snow tires.

It feels like it’s almost always winter in Minnesota, too; it was, in part, the similar climate that made the region so attractive to Finnish immigrants. Pine and birch, berries and lakes felt like home. I spent so many days sitting in my childhood bedroom looking out on the trees, the gravel road, the fields and swamps beyond that, through intricate swirls of frost. We lived far enough out in the country that there was nothing to do, at least nothing that I wanted to do. I was Rapunzel, waiting in my tower of ice, but I didn’t need rescue. I just needed enough time to pass so that I could start making my own decisions about who I was and what I would do. But even then, since I left and began living on my own, it has been a continual process of shedding those layers of beliefs, including the ones I thought I had disavowed completely.

***

I believe that fundamentally I am a writer, first borne out by my early scribblings and later by the despair I felt in any other vocation. But I struggled to imagine myself at a university outside the Midwest because, until my older sister went to graduate school out West, I hadn’t seen anybody I knew go anywhere else. When a high school teacher didn’t respond in time to my request for a letter of recommendation to a top-ranked school, I took it as confirmation that it wasn’t for me and applied to a single public university where I knew I’d get in. When I graduated, I hesitated and went with what seemed like the safest form of writing—technical writing—which had little to do with my dreams. I often wonder what would have become of a version of myself that went to college in California or New England; I imagine her to be freer of the ties that still bind.

More than anything, Deadwind reminds me of how deeply ingrained a limited sense of the possible is in my psyche. I am still surprised to see people who look—and love—like me doing things unimagined in the church. Flying helicopters across international borders in pursuit of answers. Debating energy policy on live television. Even when the sweet-looking mayor pushes a former staffer who tries to blackmail her into the icy Gulf of Finland and leaves him there to drown, I find myself impressed by her ability to act so quickly and freely. I am still cautious, quicker to check myself than to act on impulse or take a risk. What else am I missing? What else have I not yet realized I learned and could thus unlearn?”

 

***

Rachel Keranen was born and raised in Minnesota. She was a 2020-2021 Columbia University Teaching Fellow and has taught creative writing courses in the Columbia University High School Program and at the TUMO Center in Yerevan, Armenia. Rachel’s work has been named a finalist for the Missouri Review‘s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and received honorable mention in the New Letters Conger Beasley Jr. Award for nonfiction. In August of
 2019, she was an artist in residence at AARK, a residency in the Turku Archipelago. When she is not writing or teaching, she is usually running, usually on an island.