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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Anna (Anni) Viktoria Blomqvist (1909-1990)


Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, a fisherman's wife who began her writing career in the 1960s. Anni Blomqvist gained popularity with her novels about the harshly beautiful Åland Islands. Her first book, the autobiographical I stormens spår (1966), grew out of personal tragery: Blomqvist's husband and oldest son drowned while on a fishing trip. In Finland-Swedish literature Blomqvist has become an encouraging model for other self-taught authors.

--"Tiden låter sig inte hejdas av dödens framfart. Den stannar heller inte och väntar på dem som med blytunga fötter och sönderkrossade hjärtan måste kämpa sig över det väldiga tomrum som dödens slag lämnade efter sig.
--Tiden är vinter och vår, sommar och höst. Den är omsorger och bekymmer, och fordrar tankar och handling. Det är att följa med. Att inte stanna."
(from Vägen från Stormskäret, 1973)

Anni (Blomqvist) Karlsson was born in Simskäla, Vårdö, small island in the archipelago of Åland Islands, located between Sweden and Finland. She was the eldest of ten children of Viktor Hjalmar Karlsson, a farmer, and his wife, Anna Xenia Johansson. Officially her first name was Anna but from early on, she was called Anni. Her mother Anna Xenia was a deeply religious person, who read the Bible to her children every Sunday. Anni was never as close with her mother, exhausted by pregnancies and childbirth, as she was with her father, brother Viktor, born with a hare-lip, and gradmother, Anna Kristina Törnroos, who died in 1933 at the age of eighty-seven; she was lovingly portrayed in her books.

As a child, Anni helped her parents with fishing and on the farm. Because the children had no ready-made toys, they invented their own fantasy plays, and used whatever material they had at hand. Reading and writing were her favorite past-times.

Traditionally, three generations lived under the same roof. Often in the evenings the children sang together or listened to stories told by older people, dealing with stange occurences, ghosts, treasures buried in the ground, giants, and dragons. Blomqvist also learned to read omens that warned of danger. The Bible was in every house and world events were followed from the newspaper Ålandstidningen; they also read Hufvudsstatsbladet and religious magazines. A number of Blomqvist's small cousins lived on the same main island. Five of them became writers – the most famous was Sally Salminen (1906-1976), whose debut novel Katrina, published by Holger Schildts Förlag, appeared in 1936.

After finishing elementary school, Blomqvist was educated as a seamstress in Marianhamn. She financed her studies by working among others as a caretaker of the school. In 1936 she married Valter Blomqvist, a sailor from the age of fourteen before becoming a fisherman. They had known each other from childhood, and had been in correspondence since Anni's confirmation. Moreover, letter-writing became an outlet for her, a way to express her thoughts. Tommy, their first son, was born in 1939. Next year Blomqvist gave birth to twin sisters, who lived only four hours. Bengt, their last child, was born in 1945; he drowned in 1987.

A sailor's wife, Blomqvist took care of the cows, sheeps, and children, and went to fishing, while her husband was at sea. During the war years, they built a new house in Strömmen, Simskäla. Electric power was brought into Simskäla in 1965. When the author needed more room for her books, an extra wing was added to the house in 1973. The marriage, despite quarrels and a continual shortage of money, was happy.

Blomqvist lost her husband tragically in 1961, when he drowned with Tommy on a fishing trip. After his death she wrote: "I'm lying full awake in the darkness, and Valter is not beside me. I can't hold his big, safe hand . . ." When he disappeared she had a vision of her husband and her son and the fury of the sea bringing a big wave over the small boat, the Delfin. Search teams were unable to find their bodies, but in 1972 the boat was found in 65 meters of water. Whatever happened, personal tragedies and suffering, Blomqvist never lost her faith in God. She believed that there is a heavenly bridge between the living and the dead.

"Jag känner det som om jag skulle ha fått en egen tideräkning. Nu är det tredje resan de far ut. Först var det resan med det första motorhaveriet. Sedan resan med det stora olyckstillbudet. Det här är den tredje resan. Det händer ingen mer olycka nu när de har den nya motorn." (from I stormens spår, 1966)

It was not until 1972, when a ferry connection was established to Simskäla. Blomqvist didn't travel much in his life. She made trips to Stockholm and Helsinki and in 1950 she traveled in Sweden with local members of the Martha Organization (Marttaliitto). Her account of the journey was published in the magazine Samarbete under the title 'Ålandsmarthorna på Sverigeresa.'

To overcome the feeling of emptiness, Blomqvist began to write. Her first efforts Blomqvist showed to Margit von Willebrand-Hollmérus, who encouraged her to continue. In 1949 she won a writing competition arranged by the Martha Organization. Her story, 'En lanthusmoders dag', was published in the magazine Husmodern, which opened a channel for further contributions to different magazines. Blomqvist's first novel, completed in 1951, was rejected Bro, a publishing firm run by professor Otto Anderson. An invitation by Stig Jaatinen, professor of geography at Helsingfors, to collaborate on a study of her island community, led Blomqvist to focus on books about the lives of fishermen and their families.

Blomqvist usually wrote in the morning, at the kitchen table, before beginning the day's work. Through the window, she could watch the constantly-changing sea. Blomqvist never called herself an author, but a storyteller. From 1967 she began to keep a diary, in which she recorded the temperature, conditions of the weather, and fragments of her days. Her first work, I stormens spår (In the wake of the storm), published by Söderströms, came out when she was 57. It looked back over her life as the wife of a sailor in the Åland merchant fleet. Blomqvist also depicted risky voyages to Sweden during World War II, happy times, and the purchase of her husband's own boat. With he money she earned from the book, Blomqvist bought the collected works of J.L. Runeberg, the national poet of Finland.

The sincerity of the survival story immediately won her a public, that shared the same values of hard work, persistence, and indomitable spirit. I stormens spår sold 22,000 copies in Swedish and 11,000 copies in Finnish. This work was followed by several other books which made her a national figure. In 1967 Blomqvist met President Urho Kekkonen and in 1983 President Mauno Koivisto visited her home in Strömmen.  

After the breakthrough, Blomqvist published five novels, the Stormskär series, about a fisherman's wife named Maja. Vägen till Stormskäret (1968, The road to the Storm skerry), Med havet som granne (1969, The sea as a neighbour), Maja (1970), I kamp med havet (1971, At war with the sea), and Vägen från Stormskäret (1973, Goodbye, Storm skerry) presented Åland from the standpoint of a brave woman, a survivor, who had to struggle not against the hard nature but also find her place in the patriarchal family. The model for Maja was Blomqvist's great-aunt, Maria Mickelsdotter, who lived in the 19th-century. She died in 1901 on a remote island, but Blomqvist had heard in her childhood stories of her life, and the endless loses she had suffered. Her husband, however, did not drown but died at the age of 59 from a stomach complaint. Blomqvist's first novel, the Stormskär series, and  I nöd och lust (1978, In sickness and in health) were edited by the writer Margit von Willebrand-Hollmérus, her friend.

"Det känns som en kniv skulle skärä upp och ned. Maja torkar tårarna från kinden, knäpper ihop bluslivet och lägger Gabriel i vaggen. Hon tar ett steg mot Janne och smeker honom över håret, han drar henne ned på sitt knä, men de säger ingenting mera. Det är bara nära varandra i en smärta som känns alltför stor." (from Maja, 1970)

Maja was Blomqvist's alter ego. After publishing Simskäla (1977), the study proposed by Professor Jaatinen, and I nöd och lust, a story about hard work and marital devotion, Blomqvist started a new series with a new protagonist, Anna Beata, a woman of the isles. The trilogy included Anna Beata (1979), Anna Beata möter kärleken (1981), and Anna Beata får eget hem (1983). It was partly based on the life of her maternal grandmother. The series received lukewarm reviews.

Blomqvist's last novel was Havet finns inte mer (1989), a pious report on the drowning of her younger son, Bengt, in 1987. The loss shadowed Blomqvist's last years of life. After a full two months his body was found lying on a beach, "as if lifted out of the sea by God's invisible hand." The novel appeared when the author was 80. Blomqvist died on Vårdö on June 26, 1990. Just before her death, she had called her sister Agnes and told him she wasn't feeling well. Then she had put on a pink nightgown she had never used.

Blomqvist's Stormskär series (The Storm Islands) was made into an acclaimed television drama, directed by Åke Lindman and starring Rose-Marie Rosenback and Leif Sundberg. Its theme song, composed by Lasse Mårtenson, became very popular. Through the television series the protagonist, Maja, became an icon in Finnish literature, a loving and toiling woman, the always unpredictble sea providing the background for her story. Blomqvist received in 1975 the Finnish State Literature Award and in 1977 she was awarded with Pro-Finlandia medal. In celebration of Finland's centenary of independence the Helsinki City Theatre produced Myrskyluodon Maija Musical. The music, composed by Lasse Mårtenson, was adapted from the 1976 TV series. The piano transcription of  Mårtenson's subtle theme 'Myrskyluodon Maija' (Stormskärs Maja) is allegedly the best-selling Finnish music publication of all time.

Tiina Lymi's screen version from 2024, starring Amanda Jansson as Maija and Linus Troedsson as Janne, covered the period from the 1840s to near the end of the century. The director had never read the books or seen the television series, but after seeing a dream she felt compelled to make the movie. "Elokuvan sydän ja sielu on kuitenkin hienosta poliisisarjasta Ohuella langalla tuttu Amanda Jansson, joka näyttelee Maijaa tavattoman herkästi ja vivahteikkaasti, käyttäen taitavasti ilmeitä ja katseita luodakseen Maijasta monisärmäisen, mutta ehjän ihmiskuvan. Janssonin myötä Maijan kohtaloihin on helppo eläytyä ja mennä mukaan." (Pertti Avola, Helsingin Sanomat, 23,1.2024)

For further reading: Kesäpoika: Anni Blomqvistin luona Simskälassa by Hans Colliander (2023); 'Anni Blomqvist', in Haltiakuusen alla: suomalaisia kirjailijakoteja by Anne Hiltunen, Annamari Saure, Jari Suominen (2013); Stormskärets Anni by Anna-Gerd Steinby (2009); Stormskärsåländska: om folkmålet i Anni Blomqvists Stormskärsromaner by Ralf Svenblad (2006); Women in Maritime Communities: A Socio-Historical Study of Continuity and Change in the Domestic Lives of Seafarer's Wives in the A land Islands, from 1930 into the New Millennium by Hanna Charlotta Hagmark (2003); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); 'Tuntui niin pahalta, kun lähdit', in Suurin on rakkaus by Kaija Valkonen and Elina Koivunen (1997); Anni Blomqvist: Stormskärs-Majas skapare by Ann-Gerd Steinby & Ann Christin Waller (1993); Anni Blomqvist: Åländsk folklivsskidrare by Inger Örtenblad (1974) - Other writers from Åland Islands: Joel Pettersson (1892-1937), Sally Salminen (1906-1976), Aili Nordgren (1908-1995), Ulla-Lena Lundberg (b. 1947); Carina Karlsson (b. 1966)

Selected works:

  • I stormens spår, 1966 [In the wake of the storm] - Meri yksin ystäväni (suom Björn-Christer Lindgren, 1977) - "Lähtökohtana on kirjailijan miehen ja toisen pojan hukkuminen kalastusmatkalla 1961, ja kirjan rungoksi kasvaa 25 vuotta kestäneen avioliiton kuvaus... Historian harrastuksestaan kertoessaan Anni Blomqvist tulee kiintoisasti valaisseeksi myös myöhemmän Myrskyluoto- sarjan taustaa, vaikka sen kirjoittaminen ei 1966 vielä tunnukaan hänen mielessään väikkyneen. - Käännös on hyvä, mutta Sastmola on toki suomeksi Merikarvia." (Risto Hannula in Arvosteleva kirjaluettelo, 1977, no. 6) -
  • Vägen till Stormskäret, 1968 [The road to the Storm skerry] - Tie Myrskyluodolle (suom. Björn-Christer Lindgren, 1974)
  • Med havet som granne, 1969 [The sea as a neighbour] - Luoto meressä (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1975)
  • Maja, 1970 - Maija (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1975)
  • I kamp med havet, 1971 [At war with the sea] - Meren voimia vastaan (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1976)
  • Vägen från Stormskäret, 1973 [Goodbye, Storm skerry] - Hyvästi Myrskyluoto (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1976)
  • Simskäla: En skildring av en åländsk utskärsbygt, 1977 (with Stig Jaatinen)
  • I nöd och lust, 1978 [In sickness and in health] - Saari tuulten sylissä (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1979)
  • Anna Beata, 1979 - Anna Beatan suuri ikävä (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1980)
  • Anna Beata möter kärleken, 1981 - Anna Beata kohtaa rakkauden (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1981)
  • Anna Beata får eget hem, 1983 - Anna Beata saa oman kodin (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1984)
  • Vandring i barndomslandet, 1986 - Muistojeni Myrskyluoto (suom. Margit Salmenoja, 1988)
  • Havet finns inte mer, 1989 - Eikä merta enää ole (suomentanut Margit Salmenoja, 1990)
  • Stormskärs-Maja, 2007 (contains Vägen till Stormskäret, Med havet som granne, Maja, I kamp med havet, Vägen från Stormskäret)
  • Myrskyluoto muistoissani, 2007 (contains Meri yksin ystäväni, Muistojeni Myrskyluoto)

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