The Journal of Otto Peltonen

I’ve been deliberately skipping the My Name is America books because I think they’re boring, but here’s one that’s pretty interesting (written by the same guy who wrote Sean Sullivan, which could win awards for being boring).

The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant, Hibbings, Minnesota, 1905, William Durbin, 2000.

otto

Why don’t the MNIA books get clever titles? It’s so dull. They relaunched the series in 2012 and did give them titles, which is cool, but this one was not chosen for reissue and hence didn’t get a new title. My copy does have a fold-out section at the back with a cross-section map of an iron mine, which is pretty cool, though. Interestingly, the books across all the series tend to have a strong pro-union bias, which pops up in this book (as we shall see) as well as the newsie diary set in 1899, the Dear America novel Hear My Sorrow about shirtwaist workers, A Coal Miner’s Bride (again with the mining!), and to a lesser extent in Days of Toil and Tears (Dear Canada).

The other thing that tends to be a bit less engaging about the MNIA (and I Am Canada, etc.,) is that they need to be focused on older boys in order to effectively be a part of the story (generally: war, or work, and it’s a real stretch to get an 11-year-old protagonist involved in a war that’s not on the home front). But that is frustrating in itself—the books are targeted at younger boys, but the protagonists are older, which isn’t strange, but it ends up reading as a strange mishmash between the two ages. Eventually I am going to get around to reviewing I Am Canada, which suffers from a lot of the same issues, but in the meantime I will just say that if you’re going to write series about girls where they experience the war at home, you can do that with boys, too. Plenty of young teenage and preteen boys experienced wars and social upheaval at home, without having to go Be In It! That’s a valid plot for a book, too! But the only MNIA that really covers this is one where there’s a kid who’s a witness to the Battle of Fredericksburg, and they already had a journal about a Civil War soldier anyhow.

I digress, though. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the things I liked about this book were things like the engaged tone and the really well-drawn depiction of a family under stress. What’s more, it touches on “I have a friend but his family is kind of shady,” which is something that usually doesn’t come up in books for preteens. Anyway, we start out in Finland, where Otto and his mother and two younger sisters are leaving to finally join his father in Hibbings, Minnesota, where he is a coal miner. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrive there, Otto’s mother is horrified that they’ve left a cozy little home in Finland to go live in what is literally a tar-paper shack. I cannot blame her.

Otto’s younger sister, Helena, is “bratty” and fussy, and his youngest sister Lisa is quiet and sweet, and while I’d normally complain that they don’t get any more characterization than that, one of the things I actually really enjoy about this book is that while Otto begins by getting constantly frustrated with his sisters, as they grow up he relates to them more and they become a bit more sympathetic in his descriptions. It’s nicely done. Their family has gone to America for a chance to own their own land, and they’re trying to save up for a farm to that end, but the wages the mines pay are low to begin with and they dock for every little thing—meaning that they’ll be waiting a really, really long time. Otto’s father, consequently, has become interested in the union rumblings among the Finnish miners, or “the struggle.” One of the major problems outlined is that the captains can change the rate of pay, and since miners are paid based on the amount of ore they remove, their pay is more or less at the discretion of the captains.

Otto befriends a kid about his age, Nikko, whose father is also a miner, but who seems to be far, far more well-off than Otto’s family is. Nikko wants to be an engineer, gets good marks in school, and is generally pretty gentlemanly, but Otto finds it strange that his family is so much wealthier than everyone else, when Nikko’s father is just a regular miner like everyone else. Otto’s mother goes to work part-time at a boardinghouse, and Helena eventually starts working there as well, but Nikko’s mother and sister don’t work at all.

In September, Otto starts school, and is pretty quickly promoted to the seventh grade, and while that’s a bit low for a 16-year-old, he does fine. (Aside from his execrable penmanship, that is.) His family begins saving in earnest for a down payment on a farm, which they do well at until the spring, when Lisa comes down with scarlet fever. The doctor’s bills wipe out their entire savings, and at the end of the school year Otto goes into the mines with his father. At first he works outside doing lumber work, but still it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life. While he’s breaking his back there, Nikko is working part-time in a candy store, and plans on going to high school.

Once Otto begins working underground, it’s even worse than it was before—it’s cold and damp and constantly full of dust in the air, in addition to being deafeningly loud and backbreaking work. Otto also discovers why Nikko’s father is so well-off—he pays bribes to the foreman to give him good ore pockets and lighter work, and he’s in the bosses’ pockets. Otto’s father also thinks that Nikko’s father is a spy for the bosses—getting a dollar a day to report to them on who’s talking about unions and so on. This entire arc is handled beautifully—Otto grapples with a lot of different emotions about this. He’s upset that his father doesn’t make as much money, but he’s disgusted that Nikko’s father would be a suck like that, and he’s frustrated that it’s the only way to get ahead, and jealous of the money, and yet he still likes Nikko as his friend.

Near the end of July, there’s a cave-in in one of the mines, and one man is killed. The bosses force Otto and the rest of the men back into the mines that same day to clear out the rubble, and Otto’s mother demands that he quit. But he realizes he can’t—they can’t afford to lose his wages, can’t afford their farm yet, can’t afford to go back to Finland. So he’s stuck. The American Socialist Party in Hibbings really starts gaining ground after this, holding rallies for the men and gaining huge numbers of followers. Meanwhile, work starts to slow down at the mines, and Otto’s father begins to sell some of the carved wooden toys he’s made for the kids, and eventually begins to earn some good money doing so. And finally in December, their family hears about a farm that will be available in the spring, and they may be able to afford it. It’s overgrown and falling down, but the woman selling it is an older Finnish woman who wants to see it go to a nice family, and offers to hold it until they can get the money together.

Incidentally, one of my favourite parts of this book is how frustrated Otto gets with learning English and how strange it sounds, which is hilarious because have you ever listened to anyone speak Finnish? It’s like French and Russian and Latin had a baby and got it drunk.

But mining is still pretty terrible work, and Otto is frustrated at the way they’re treated by the foremen and captains (i.e., horribly). Otto’s father continues to lobby for a strike, which means he gets assigned to work the worst jobs, and Otto along with him. “When will I escape this mine where it is forever night and forever winter? I feel like I don’t belong in this town. I keep thinking back to the summers I spent on Grandpa’s farm. Things were so clean and simple and calm. Now it seems like the Old Country has forgotten me and the new one doesn’t care.” That’s oddly poetic, and quite nice. Otto isn’t the only one who feels that way, though, and the midsummer picnic is taken over by Socialists giving speeches, who are gaining an awful lot of ground among miners who think the same way as Otto.

In July, the workers at the docks begin a wildcat strike, and the union decides they will strike as well in solidarity. Before the strike officially begins, Otto’s father actually kicks the foreman in the ass, and is (obviously) fired the next day. Several hundred men strike together, and Otto is honestly surprised to see that the majority of the townspeople do not support the miners. He asks at a town hall meeting, quite honestly, who is going to patronize their businesses if the miners are out of work and starving? While the men are striking, the steel company brings in foreign workers brand-new to America who know nothing about the strike on sealed trains in order to work.

Otto’s family has put together enough money for the down payment on their farm, and they begin to bring their things over while the strike goes further downhill. People begin to leave Hibbings in droves, and Nikko’s father discovers that there’s no work for him either—since he’s Finnish and the Finns were the ones who began the agitation, he’s been blacklisted as well. Nikko has to leave school to work full-time to help earn his family’s passage back to Finland, and Otto says good-bye for good just before they move out to their farm permanently.

Rating: B+. I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed this one! It’s not as deadly boring as some of the other MNIA books, which is I think because there’s multiple focuses going on here (family stress, union struggle, actual experience of working in a mine, long-term goals) rather than a laserlike focus on The Issue Of The Book. There are some really nicely-written passages, and a lot of tricky issues are handled with a surprising delicacy. When Otto befriends someone whose father is kind of a heel, he’s not automatically condemned—and neither is the father. It’s made very clear that people can do somewhat shameful things in an effort to help their families, and I like that it touches on how things can fail to work out even for people who do the right thing. Surprisingly well-written in a series where several of the books can be described as journeyman at best—I liked it far more than I had expected. This is one of the very few books I review that I genuinely think could have been made longer without any problems.

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