Summer Reads: Mission Estonia, Justin Petrone's Latest ({{commentsTotal}})

Features & Background
Features & Background

Estonia is no enigma wrapped in a cloak of secrecy kept behind a wall of silence. We are not North Korea nor Bhutan; we have been discovered, rediscovered, conquered and reconquered for more than a thousand years.

Our geology, folklore and genes are some of the most studied in the world, yet we have a borderline unhealthy yearning for foreigners to analyze us, to tell us what they think of us and our 'weird' ways.

US expat Justin Petrone has filled that niche in the last few years with his two “My Estonia” books, read by the masses, all wanting a foreigner's take on Estonia, and themselves.

Yet his new book, titled “Mission Estonia,” departs from that path and Estonia is no longer the protagonist, despite the title. Maybe Petrone is now Estonian? He's certainly lived here long enough, and not in cosmopolitan-ish Tallinn, but in offbeat Viljandi, fathered three half-local kids. Maybe it is mission complete for Petrone?

Most of the 64 essays are short recollections followed by a homespun philosophical conclusion. The topics are love, family, relationships with parents, the usual ones covered by blogs and women's magazines, which is where some of the columns also appeared.

For those who have read the “My Estonia” books and followed Petrone's travels from the US to Viljandi, Petrone may have become an old friend, and you will certainly find him in the worldly, non-Estonian essays.

A minority of essays do focus on Estonia, seeking hidden gems that have previously been overlooked, like Estonian's obsession with preserving fruits for winter, once a practice followed by nearly everyone, but as the Soviet Union is no more, people now have other opportunities such as a career or travel or computers, and juice and jam making becoming more anachronistic.

Petrone's take on the fruit season and other observations are just that, observations. Readers will feel like Petrone is a deity, drifting over the country, blown by gentle winds, and those seeking deeper explanations will be disappointed.

His life in Viljandi, a town of 20,000 overshadowed by its annual folk music festival, should have been featured more. Largely unknown to foreigners and Estonians alike, Viljandi seems like a mystical place. Where mission Estonia ends, mission Viljandi could be a promising new trajectory for Petrone.

In one of the last essays, “Missionary Position,” which is the name of the Estonian version of the book, Petrone touches on the subject of foreigners believing they can easily fix Estonia's problems, more often than not by only giving advice. Petrone admits to also taking the role of a missionary, something that he has now given up.

It is a lesson that foreigners in Estonia have been learning since the first crusades in the early 13th century. But it is a topic that perhaps Petrone missed an opportunity to elaborate on, and we are left wanting more: how did he arrive at the conclusion, and what to tell other missionaries?

Material for book number four.

-Juhan-Markus Laats 

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