Finnish culture enthusiasts turn the page on immigrants’ historyIf you want to read some fascinating Finnish legend and lore, one essential work would be Arnold R. Alanen’s most recent book, “Finns in Minnesota.”
By: Thomas Vaughn, Duluth Budgeteer News
If you want to read some fascinating Finnish legend and lore, one essential work would be Arnold R. Alanen’s most recent book, “Finns in Minnesota.” In it, you can learn about Matt Ilka, who wanted to startle his neighbors by eating beer glasses.
A recently retired history professor of 37 years, Alanen speaks, reads, and understands Finnish, allowing him to perform his own notable feats. For example, searching through the 1920 Minnesota Census, he and an assistant looked through 29,000 names to determine exactly what percentage of the state’s residents were classified as “Finland Swedes.” Poorly documented in history books, Finland Swedes are Finnish through their national history and culture, but also share a linguistic commonality with Swedish due to their geographic proximity to Sweden.
“I thought since I had lived with immigrants and have a facility with the language, it was an opportune time for me to write this book,” said Alanen, who gave a lecture recently at Grace Lutheran Church in
Hermantown to an audience of about 50 listeners.
Along with the fabulous folk tales is Alanen’s commitment to writing a scholarly book that is accessible to a general readership. He skillfully blends both a global and local story into a complete history of Minnesota’s Finnish people. Throughout the book, Alanen notes the European and Russian historical events that directly influenced the personal, social and cultural choices of Finnish settlers to the Twin Ports and surrounding area.
He may have had to hold back. Part of a Minnesota Historical Society series titled “The People of Minnesota,” Alanen’s publisher limited him to 30,000 words, or about 100 pages.
Alanen shared with the group that he was an only child who grew up in a family that shared a lot of stories about their heritage. So, he felt that he had a perspective others might not have that would be pertinent to writing a book.
He said he also read and analyzed many Finnish language newspapers that had not been given previous scholarly attention.
The local chapter of the Finlandia Foundation sponsored the lecture. The local group started about 18 months ago, and hopes to increase its programming and visibility.
“We’re very committed to working with the arts and culture of Finland. We also have scholarships available for people wanting to study or create artworks based on Finnish culture,” said Arlene (Putikka) Tucker, who identifies as 100 percent Finnish, and is the current treasurer of the foundation.
Bob Anttila attended the event. He speaks, and has studied, Finnish.
“Well, Arnold is talking about Finns in Minnesota tonight and that’s been my whole life,” he said. “I lived in Finland for many years and it’s my ancestry. Whenever I hear about Finnish topics my ears perk up.”
During the lecture, Alanen pointed out that histories of Minnesota Finnish settlers have been written in the past, but usually had a narrow focus that would not appeal to a general reader. One book he mentioned was a collection of stories gathered from numerous local sources unconnected with each other in any coherent way — a volume he described as “not a page-turner.” Also, other books, while good histories, had been written in Finnish and are inaccessible to those who don’t read the language.
Like the story of glass-eater Ilka, who kept up with his hobby for years, still claiming good health and unusually strong teeth into 1941 when he turned 62, according to Alanen — though his accomplishments are hardly the most notable of his countrymen.
“I hope readers realize the remarkable contribution Finns have made to the history of this state, that Finns were an important facet of Minnesota history,” said Alanen after the lecture.
To learn more about the Finlandia Foundation, visit www.FinlandiaFoundation.org.