Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review of Finns in the United States from New World Finn Newspaper

A review of the newest book on the Finnish immigrant experience in the US. I did the chapter on religion and what follows is a review of the book, which was edited by Auvo Kostiainen.

Finns in the United States A History of Settlement, Dissent, and Integration Auvo Kostiainen, Editor
Michigan State University Press, 2014 
Reviewed by Ivy Nevala 

The subtitle of this absorbing book immediately gives the reader a hint  of its organization.  Editor Kostiainen informs us that it is only the second comprehensive volume on the history of Finns in North America.  A. William Hoglund produced the first in 1960, concentrating on the years 1880-1920.  
People whose names are familiar to readers of Finnish Americana contributed their insights and examine Finnish American history:  Auvo Kostiainen, Jon Saari, Reino Kero, Arnold Alanen, Peter Kivisto, Paul G. Hummasti, Gary Kaunonen, Hannu Heinilä, Keijo Virtanen, Mika Roinila, Erik Hieta, and Johanna Leinonen.  Some may wonder why Finnish Canadians are mentioned only briefly; Kostiainen says they deserve their own volume.
Finns, a relatively small group of immigrants to the U.S., made a considerable impact, because they congregated in certain areas, especially the northern Midwest.  Finnish influence began with the New Sweden colony in Delaware and immigration was cyclical, with peaks from the 1870's to the 1920's and then again after World War II.  Alanen reviews the past and current FinnTtowns and Nesting Places, and Kivisto and Leinonen examine forces that questioned Finnish racial identity and attempted to categorize Finns as "non -white".  This is a topic that has amazed many younger people in this reviewer's family.
As the immigration population grew, the need for organizations of various types became apparent.  Hummasti looks at temperance and religious activities and the tensions created by the desire of some to allow dancing in the halls.  Kaunonen shows how religion and economics became a powerful combination and united American capitalism with the church (Suomi Synod) to espouse the Protestant work ethic onto the immigrants.  He goes on to relate the growth of Laestadianism in Finnish enclaves and then of Congregational, Baptist,  Methodist, and Catholic congregations in the Finnish community.
Finns were an atypical immigrant group because of the level of literacy.  Typically, only 26 per cent of newly arrived immigrants were literate, but among the Finns only 2 per cent sixteen and older were illiterate!   Finns continued their education, establishing language schools, reading rooms, and libraries, all of which helped perserve Finnish culture.  Additionally, they formed two institutions of higher learning, Suomi Opisto and the Work People's College.  From early childhood on, Finnish Americans of earlier generations experienced theater groups, various musical groups (choral and instrumental), and gymnastic and other sports associations established by Finns.  Since they were a literate people, newspapers and publications played a big role in Finnish networking as a part of cultural identity.
It can be said that the wide range of political beliefs from right to left influenced every Finnish organization.  Finns have had a big impact in the labor movement, pressing for improvements in working conditions and in social reforms for working people.  Heinilä says no ethnic group had more influence on cooperatives than the Finns had.  Co-ops began first in insurance, mutual benefit groups, and boarding houses.  Consumer co-ops, culminating in the Central Cooperative Wholesale, provided a network of consumer products which sustained Finnish communities until the emergence of the supermarkets in the later 1950's.  Since then, only a few co-ops have survived.  Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the "co-op store" kept the community together.  
Roinila reviews the contributions of Finland Swedes (citizens of Finland whose mother tongue is a dialect of Swedish known as "Finland Swedish", compared to the "national Swedish" of Sweden.  Before World War I, one in five Finnish immigrants were Finland Swedes.  They too formed the kinds of organizations developed by Finnish Finns.
Hieta, Virtanen, and Kostiainen  examine the connections between Finland and North America, immigrants revisiting Finland, humanitarianism after and during World War II, and the return of Finnish Americans to Finland.
When Leinonen interviewed fairly recent immigrants from Finland, she learned some don't think of Finnish Americans as real Finns and are uncomfortable about some of the recent festivities,  such as St. Urho's Day.  Others bridge Finnish traditions and American traditions as situations arise, especially in cases where one spouse is Finnish.  Leinonen's observations ring true.  I doubt that  in Finnish America there are any aspects of Finnish culture that aren't influenced in some way by the broader American culture.
The discussions by the various authors reveal the point made by Saari, that historians seek patterns of meaning out of the activities of the past.  Finnish Americans have become hybridized as succeeding generations come into contact with non-Finns, communicating and working with them or marrying them. 
The authors are to be commended for their thoughtful contributions to the various themes of this book, published by the Michigan State University Press in 2014.  It is available as a paperback and an e-book.

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