Monday, December 21, 2009

Review of Finns in Michigan from the Michigan Historical Review

This review was done this September by Guntis Smidchens, a member of the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Washington. The review was published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Michigan Historical Review.

The review:

Gary Kaunonen. Finns in Michigan; Book review

Smidchens, Guntis

Gary Kaunonen. Finns in Michigan. "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan" series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009. Pp. 123. Appendices. For further reference. Index. Notes. Photographs. Paper, $12.95.

The Finns of Michigan gained a prominent place in American ethnic scholarship when Michigan State University historian Richard M. Dorson wrote a chapter about them in his classic, Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of the Upper Peninsula (1952). More than a half-century later, the tradition of Finnish ethnic studies is ably carried on by Gary Kaunonen, archivist at Finlandia University's Finnish American Historical Archives in Hancock, Michigan. Kaunonen avoids the stereotypical account of immigrant accomplishments and contributions to America, offering instead a work "inclusive of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the Finnish experience in Michigan" (p. 1)."Ugly" refers to the ideological rift that ran deep, splitting the immigrants from one relatively small European country into violently opposed camps. Kaunonen gives an unbiased account of all political factions (p. 59), succeeding where others such as Armas Holmio fall short (p. 35).

The research behind this book is exceptionally rich and well done.Kaunonen consulted published secondary sources and newspapers in both English and Finnish, and he also makes use of oral histories. The latter sources are essential because so few written documents describe, for example, the logging operations where many Finns worked (p. 32). Women's experiences, too, are not easy to reconstruct (pp. 40-41, 44-45, 69-71, 73-75).

Finnish immigration to Michigan concentrated heavily in the Upper Peninsula; workers were drawn by opportunities offered by copper mines and the timber industry. Finns first came to Hancock around 1864, arriving from Norway's spent mines. Large-scale immigration from Finland proper began in the mid-1880s and peaked around the turn of the twentieth century. Although they arrived as industrial workers, many Finns purchased land and established subsistence farms. Even today in several Upper Peninsula localities, up to one-half of the population can claim Finnish ancestry (p. 8). Among the first Finnish organizations were religious congregations. Finns constructed churches and then split into warring denominations. Secular temperance societies built Finn Halls to host nonreligious activities such as lectures, concerts, dances, and sports; they often housed libraries as well. These social and recreational societies gradually gave way to organized labor groups. The Michigan Copper Strike of 19131914 was one of the events that helped fragment Finns into deeply divided ideological factions.

Strange sociocultural practices such as sauna and the "Finglish" language, along with rumors of drunken knife fights and a preference for communist ideas often marked Finns as stereotypical outsiders and savages. "We do not want Finlanders," the manager of a copper mine once wrote to the commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island (p. 18). But Finns also left a positive mark on American culture when they organized Michigan's first successful consumers' cooperatives, which grew to include large numbers of non-Finns. These cooperatives began to disappear only recently, replaced by supermarkets (pp. 80-83).

In summary, Kaunonen's Finns in Michigan adds a valuable case study of one very diverse ethnic group to the history of American ethnic communities and their cultures. This brief review cannot do justice to his colorful, rigorously researched book.

Guntis Smidchens
Department of Scandinavian Studies
University of Washington, Seattle
December 17, 2009