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Burn My Letters: Tyranny to Refuge

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At the end of the 19th century Finland is a dark and repressive place. Pacifist and political dissenter Karl Johan Back is conscripted to fight for the Russian despots that occupy his country. In 1899 he flees to an untamed land on the far side of the world. Finding refuge on ridges overlooking the Byron Bay lighthouse in northern New South Wales, he grows orchids and lush tropical fruit.

Intrigued by her ‘black sheep’ great-uncle, Ruth Bonetti pieces together the motives that propelled his flight. Finnish relatives share a treasure-trove of letters that provide answers to the many questions raised by Karl Johan’s quest for freedom.

Why did Russian military police pursue him as far as Suez? Why did he publish under a pen-name? And, most intriguing of all, why did he implore his family to burn his letters?
From a treasure trove of archival letters his great-niece Ruth discovers the political activism that propelled his escape to find refuge in an Australian rainforest. Illustrations, maps, timeline.

240 pages, Paperback

Published July 21, 2016

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Ruth Bonetti

19 books35 followers

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Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews
Profile Image for Jeanette.
Author 29 books131 followers
September 21, 2016
Thrilled to get a copy of Ruth Bonetti's Burn My Letters: From tyranny to refuge.

In this memoir/biography, Ruth traces her great-uncle Karl Johan Back story - born into a family peppered with both tragedy and faith, growing up on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland as the family wrest a living from the land under the midnight sun and northern lights, rebelling against both his father's harshness and the ever encroaching rule of the Russians, a pen-fighter, KJ eventually flees to the east coast of Australia around Byron Bay area. Is he a dreamer who wastes his money on orchids, books and newspapers, as his own father intones - or a trailblazer and visionary who paves the way for his brother's and other’s successes?

Ruth intertwines JK's journey with her experience in her search for her family’s history. She chases family legends, uncovers letters and records which sometimes collaborate and sometimes contradicts oral history. She brings KJ and his family to life through dramatic re-enactments and imagined dialogue with her irascible and witty grand-uncle to the extent that one becomes immersed in the dramatic events. She explores the hurts, disagreements and struggles as well as the love between family and lays bare the oppressive Russian yoke Finns struggled against at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

I did feel a moment of let-down when one dramatic and stirring scene was show to be part of family legend to then be replaced by the more likely scenario - and I found the ending a little anti-climatic after so much build up but these are minor concerns. I appreciate the many hours and years of meticulous research and thought that Ruth has put into discovering the life and time of her enigmatic great-uncle - including living in Sweden for several years, visiting Finland on more than one occasion, speaking to relatives, pouring through letters, the old family bible and microfiche, interrogating the possibilities.

There is nothing dull about this historical search, from the start I was drawn into the story, entertained, amused, challenged and moved.

Once again, a timely book looking at the challenges of a political refugee, his efforts to find refuge in a new land (Australia) and the contributions he and his family have made in building our nation. I look forward to reading the sequel - From the Midnight Sun to the Southern Cross - as Ruth explores her grandfather's story.
Profile Image for Ruth Bonetti.
Author 19 books35 followers
December 15, 2022
Listen up to my narration of chapters of Burn My Letters at

Goodreads allows authors to review their own books.
I'm delighted with the outcome of almost a decade's drafts, research, edits, redrafts, proofs and more proofs to put between covers a story that has fascinated me for half my life. Most authors hate blowing their own trumpets. Suffice to say, as I narrate the words, I find myself thinking, "Hey this woman can write! Who is she? Um...moi."
September 8, 2016
Ruth Bonetti is an accomplished Australian writer, musician and speaker of Finnish descent. "Burn My Letters" is the first of two books Bonetti has written about her ancestors and it is a fascinating read.
This volume concentrates mainly on Karl Johan Back (KJ), her great uncle. KJ grew up in Finland at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was controlled by Russia. To escape conscription into the Russian Army KJ secretly migrated to Australia, his promised land. The phrase "burn my letters" appears in some of his correspondence to his parents because he lived with the fear that the Russians would catch up with him, and his letters gave clues as to where he now lived.
KJ was a maverick, the black sheep of the family. He was a dreamer, a pacifist and a writer, who believed in waging war with words not bullets. He wrote letters to newspapers and had two books published, though he seems to have given more of these away than he sold.
It is an intriguing story and a rather quirky book. Bonetti includes imagined conversations with great uncle KJ, which fill the story with life and vigour. This book is a unique addition to the story of European migration to Australia.
"Burn My Letters" is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to volume 2.
Profile Image for Lisa Nitschke.
2 reviews
September 10, 2016
Just finished reading "Burn My Letters" and really enjoyed it! Being a teacher, I usually never read much during term time, but I got involved in the story and found it was a welcome break in the evenings to see how the story unfolded. Having recently visited Byron Bay and surrounding hinterland, I could picture KJ making his home there. Looking forward to the next book!
Profile Image for Adele Jones.
Author 11 books53 followers
September 23, 2016
I eagerly received my copy of this long anticipated publication, expecting to fly through from front cover to back. Instead, I found myself pausing, absorbing the lyrical qualities of this work as it drew me into the author's years-long wrestle to unravel the mysteries of her family's past. These historical identities came alive for me, staring back from the pages, conferring their fears and despair, dreams and determination.

K.J. is a likeable dreamer, introspective, yet passionate about his family and country. I was inspired by the quoted passages from his work, and enjoyed the 'exchanges' between the author and her great uncle.

(Spoiler alert.) The final image of K.J. left a residue of mixed emotions. I could feel disappointment ebbing off him, his ambitions snuffed to cinders by the ultimate futility of his anticipated moment of triumph in honouring the royal visitor with the gift into which he'd invested his heart and soul. Yet, as I watched him brace against the weight of the wheelbarrow containing his precious load, straighten his shoulders and look north, keeping '... the sea to his right ...', I could see the flame of his literary passion and pragmatic determination flicker to life. After all, 'What is 800 kilometres? He had strong legs and always walked.'
Profile Image for Mary Hawkins.
Author 24 books29 followers
February 15, 2017
An excellent, challenging book. For anyone not only interested in European history but Australian stories of refugees who arrived here years ago, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Annika Wiklund-engblom.
1 review2 followers
May 11, 2017
This lovely book touches my heart deeply. It is a history of lives disrupted by famine and wars at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Bonetti tells about her relatives, emigrants from my own home village in Finland. She bridges both time and continents with the puzzle she has pieced together from family records, letters, old newspaper clippings and her own travels across the world.

My grandmother was the daughter of so called “living man’s widow”. She told me stories about those who chose to venture out for a better life in faraway lands. Her own father was one of them, leaving his wife and two toddlers behind. He never returned from Australia. Hence, his wife, my great grandmother lived her life in Finland as a living man’s widow. Through the colourful painting of history that Ruth so vividly creates in this book, I glimpse into my own great grandfather’s struggles in the land down under. It could have been my own fate, had my great grandmother not been too ill to travel.

History tends to repeat itself. Wars are still disrupting peoples’ lives, only the names of the people and places keep changing. Ruth Bonetti’s first book (Burn My Letters) and also the second book, gives insight into how the destiny we choose for ourselves will affect those around us, and how trauma can be carried across generations. Can we understand ourselves without understanding where we originate from? This quest has driven Ruth Bonetti to dig into her family history. We readers become co-travellers to both those who stay and those who go.
Profile Image for Jeanette Grant-Thomson.
Author 9 books17 followers
April 15, 2017
Four and a half stars.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book in which the author inquires into the life of her great-uncle, Karl Johan Back.
KJ, as he is called, journeys from Finland to make a hopefully safe life in the beautiful hinterland of Byron Bay. Ruth Bonetti brings this lush forested area to life with well-crafted descriptive prose, as she did earlier with the Finnish settings.

The book is written partly from the author's point of view, partly from KJ's, and also has enjoyable sections of dialogue between the author and KJ.

KJ is an interesting character, likeable, and despite all the insights the author has given us, we are left with questions. Bold pioneer or nervous escapee? Pacifist and would-be hippy, an idealist - or often just a procrastinator? To the end, to some extent, KJ and his life remain an endearing enigma.
Profile Image for Ian.
Author 3 books43 followers
January 4, 2018
This is a biography of sorts of Karl Johan Back who immigrated to Australia from Finland in the early years of the 20th century. He left the country of his birth as a result of being conscripted into the Russian army. KJ (as he was known) hated the Russians and there was no way he’d fight for them.

The first half of the book tells of his early years in Finland, the difficult relationship with his father and the loss of a number of siblings. Further, he is bookish, one of his father’s issues, and is something he shares with Ruth, the author.

I was immediately engaged in the story as Bonetti gave me a first hand sense of the harshness of the Finnish weather. She intersperses herself throughout the book which can be a little off putting and there are even a number of chapters where she engages in an imaginary conversation with KJ.

But it’s KJ’s first years in Australia near Byron Bay that are most fascinating. That he lived alone in a makeshift hut amongst the sparseness and violence of torrential rains, large snakes, howling dingoes made it an engrossing read. The shock his father experiences when he arrives for a 2 week visit is hilarious.

His younger brother Wilhelm arrives with his father and stays , making himself a fortune in the process. He’s an ambitious young entrepreneurial man who is very clever in his investments. Unlike, KJ who just isn’t sufficiently interested in wealth but would rather read and write books.

The story ends a little abruptly I thought and one wonders if KJ just walks off never to be seen again having died somewhere on the dusty and rugged road between Sydney and Mullimbimby.
Profile Image for Mazzy Adams.
Author 2 books6 followers
November 24, 2016
'Burn My Letters' is a charming blend of well-researched narrative non-fiction and creative imagination. Ruth Bonetti has injected her heroic, real-life Great Uncle KJ Back with animated humanity and passionate expression as she traces his late 19th Century flight from an oppressed Finland to the raw and challenging environs of East-coast Australia. Along the way, she has enriched the story with her Uncle's and her own literary gems.

Ruth's writing is cohesive and easy to read. It capably supports the delightful ebb-and-flow of interesting situations, dramatic overtones, curious characters, evocative imagery and collective wisdom.

Generally speaking (or perhaps I should say 'genre-ly' speaking), I'm not a fan of memoir/biography/historic non-fiction which accounts for my rating choice of three-and-a-half to four stars. I read this to satisfy my curiosity at the intriguing title and premise and to extend my reading repertoire. Whilst I cannot say I've been converted to the genre, this is the first book of its kind that I have actually read to the end. That Bonetti managed to engage me (a genre-non-believer) for the entire duration of the book bodes well for its future in the market place. I'm confident 'Burn My Letters' will delight its genre-lovers though, and I would suggest it is a good place for the uninitiated to paddle.
2 reviews1 follower
April 28, 2018
I couldn't tear myself away when I started. Very little has been written about these past pioneers from the top of the world who left their countries to brave this new land. I travelled with them through the pages and felt their angst and joy. I recommend this as an interesting, informative and entertaining read.
Profile Image for Anne Hamilton.
Author 46 books149 followers
October 15, 2017
This family history blends creative non-fiction with a dab of magic realism to bring to life an absorbing story of great-uncle Karl Johan Back, Australia's first Finnish author. Backfilling snippets of family lore with fine research, a picture emerges of a hard-working, sensitive man struggling to make his way in a world which valued the business acumen of his younger brother far more than his own 'pen-fighting' on behalf of others.

Beautifully told with occasional photographs and diagrams, this is a rich treasure trove for future generations.

In the interests of full disclosure: I edited an early draft of this book. But it is a vastly different (and much improved) work on those initial stages.
Profile Image for Skyezz24.
2 reviews1 follower
September 12, 2021
Had the pleasure of meeting this Author @ the Logan Writers festival, her love of writing beaming through her eyes, funny, and interesting wealth of knowledge. as a migrant I am keen t read about other migrant stories, well done Ruth& Thank you
1 review
October 12, 2017
"Burn My letters " and "Midnight Sun to Southern Cross" are two companion books by Brisbane author Ruth Bonetti. They document the history of Ruth's family, of " those who go" to Australia and " those who stay " in their native Finland. Using techniques of both carefully researched non-fiction and creative fiction, the author brings to life the fortunes and the misfortunes of her Finnish ancestors, while skilfully interspersing this fascinating history with her own visits to Scandinavia.

Of particular interest is the vivid picture Ruth paints of the savage oppression by the Russians that the Finnish people endured in the late nineteenth century, an oppression that caused her great-uncle Karl Johan Back to flee to Australia in 1899 lest he be conscripted into the Russian army. Ruth's grandfather Wilhelm Back followed some years later, arriving in Sydney in 1903.

Another strand woven into this story is Ruth's own journey from shy country girl to accomplished musician, public speaker and author. I would highly recommend these most interesting books.

Juliet Hoey
1 review
August 10, 2022
I just loved these books! The history was so well researched, and the books were very well-written.
July 9, 2020
Hi Ruth and Antoni,

It was such a pleasure meeting you both on board ship at Easter.

Thank you, Ruth, for giving me your card so I could procure your two books, Burn My Letters and Midnight Sun to Southern Cross. I read them with interest and fascination. Both Graham and I are familiar with many of the places in Australia mentioned in your books, and Graham remembers the house at 209 Hawken Drive St Lucia from when he was at Kings College in 1964-5, studying for the Ministry.

I particularly enjoyed the story of you, Antoni, losing your place in the music when playing your solo. You both must have laughed over that incident many times.

I hope that all is well with you both.

Kindest Regards,

Annette (and Graham)
Profile Image for Charis Jackson.
Author 7 books14 followers
May 13, 2017
I had the privilege of listening to Ruth at her latest book launch for her second book in this series. Her passion was contagious and I found myself swept up in the story. I loved how she played with the mystery surrounding KJ's life.
Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews

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