Novel traces history of Estonia through WWII, communism

“When the Doves Disappeared” by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers (Knopf, 303 pages, $25.95)

Enough has been written about the Second World War – histories, memoirs, novels, poetry – that one might think, what else could be written? But there are stories left untold, corners unexplored, and “When the Doves Disappeared” explores one of those corners, at least for U.S. readers.

The story is set in the Baltic nation of Estonia, which was annexed by the Red Army in 1940, steamrolled by the Nazis during World War II and passed back to the Soviet Union after the defeat of Hitler. But this a novel – a story of people, not of tanks and troop movements.

The story shifts back and forth between the war years and the mid-1960s, when the communists were writing (read: revising) the history of Estonia during the Nazi occupation, fingering collaborators and praising the great Soviet machine for its “liberation” of the country. The three constants are cousins Roland and Edgar and Edgar’s wife, Juudit.

Roland is a country boy who becomes a resistance fighter, a helper of refugees and an Estonian patriot, his life tinged with sadness for Rosalie, the wife he lost during the war under murky circumstances. Edgar is a slippery opportunist, always latching on to whoever can help him get ahead (or just save his neck), whether it’s the resistance, the Nazis or the communists. Juudit, abandoned by Edgar, is adrift, torn between the promises of a German officer and loyalty to her homeland, and ends up broken and despairing, back with Edgar.

Any war story has its share of death and destruction, but “When the Doves Disappeared” seems bleak in that particularly Eastern European way: resigned to hopelessness but never quite giving up hope, accepting that one individual’s actions are ultimately futile but acting anyway.

Characters sit in a kitchen whose air is “heavy with people who are absent.” Edgar thinks how easy it would be to put an old woman “on a train headed for a cold country.” Even the book’s title is an oblique reference to Nazi pillage. The book doesn’t focus on the atrocities of the war but rather the mindset of the people living amid them.

“When the Doves Disappeared” lacks a neat tied-up-with-a-bow ending, but then, so did the story of Estonia until 1991. It’s a sad story but an important one.

Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at