The Soudan Mine--Soudan, Minnesota
Matti tried to pull back. Too late. The sledgehammer grazed the drill rod, and a spark flashed.
Father jerked his hand back from the end of the drill, barely avoiding the hammer. "Take it easy there, Matti. Keep your mind on your work."
"Just watch that hammer," Father said. His dark eyes shined in the candlelight as he turned the drill rod in the hole and leaned his face away from the end. "Ready?"
Matti nodded and took a deep breath. He was lucky that he hadn't broken Father's wrist. Matti hoisted his hammer waist high and swung again. He hit the drill square, cutting away a fraction of an inch of rock. The iron ore was so hard that it took an hour to bore a hole deep enough for a single stick of dynamite.
"That's it," Father said. "Show us your sisu." Though Matti was exhausted from his ten-hour shift, he smiled. Sisu was a Finnish word that meant strength, courage, and stubbornness all wrapped into one. It was Father's answer for every challenge in life.
"I wonder how Timo's doing?" Father asked as Matti pounded on the drill. For the last few shifts Matti's older brother Timo had been working in a different part of the mine with Uncle Wilho. Though Father would never say it out loud, Matti knew he meant that if Timo were working with him the drilling would be going a lot faster. Matti couldn't help that Timo was bigger and stronger than he was. If the mine captain here in Minnesota knew Matti was only fifteen, he never would have hired him.
At eighteen Timo was grown up. A great talker like Father and an athlete, Timo had won many prizes at school back in Finland. Matti's little sisters Anna and Kari were twins whom everyone called "cute" and "darling." That left Matti stuck in between.
Matti focused his gray eyes on the end of the rod. The steel rang out a sharp note each time the hammer fell. Though he had been working in the iron mine all winter, Matti still couldn't get used to the smell of spent powder that always hung in the air. The taste burned in the back of his throat, and his head ached.
In the weak light of their candle, puffs of reddish gray dust trickled from the blast hole.
"Time to switch?" Father asked.
As the steel rang, Father recited his favorite lines from the Kalevala. In his school days Father had memorized long sections of the Finnish epic poem. Though Father had the broad shoulders and thick chest of a blacksmith and could swing an eight-pound hammer with one hand, he also had a voice with a mellow, musical lilt. Speaking to the rhythm of his hammer, Father told the tale of his favorite Finnish hero:
Then the aged Vainamoinen
Spoke aloud his songs of magic
And a flower-crowned birch grew upward,
With its leaves all green and golden
And its summit arched to heaven . . .
As they worked, Father went on to tell of the quest for the Sampo, a magic mill that poured out equal portions of gold and grain and salt. He had shared this poem so many times that Matti knew the words by heart. Yet there was something in the ancient song that helped him forget the dust and the dark of the mine.
When it was Matti's turn to drive the steel again, he thought back to a story that Mother had read to the twins in Finland the Christmas before last. It was a new translation of a book about a tight-fisted Englishman who hated to spend even half a penny. He growled "Bah! Humbug" at everyone, and he loved darkness because it was cheap. The longer Matti worked underground, the more he thought that the mine owners had a lot in common with that old candle-saving skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge.
Matti listened to the drill echo in the red-shadowed cold. Each day Matti was more convinced that it had been a mistake to come to America. When his family left Kuopio, Finland, everyone believed that the trip would be the answer to their prayers. They'd heard that America was a grand and golden place, filled with vast tracts of untilled land waiting to be farmed. Matti never would have imagined himself working in the bone-chilling night of a mine. Though Father's wages as a tenant farmer back in Finland had been low, at least he and Matti and Timo had worked under the freedom of the open sky.
Underground there was only a single season of dark and dust and cold. During the deep winter Matti could go a whole week without ever seeing the sun. He rode the mine cage into the bowels of the earth before dawn, and he didn't come up until after sunset. After spending his days drilling in red dust and candle smoke, he walked home under a sky lit by the flickering bits of blue-white stars. With every step he wished they had never left home.
Matti would never forget the day his father decided to move to America. They had just finished delivering the landlord's share of their potato crop on the afternoon that Uncle Wilho's letter arrived from Minnesota. At first Father read silently. Then his brown eyes flashed. "One hundred sixty acres are free to anyone willing to start a homestead. Just think! A whole quarter section, while we're struggling to survive on twelve rented acres!" He waved his arms as he always did when he got excited. "Wilho says that if I go to Minnesota first and work with him in the mine I can save enough money to send for the rest of the family."
"I'll not be made an America Widow, Leo Ojala," Mother said. "America Widow" was the name given to Finnish women who were waiting for their husbands to mail them steamship passage. One woman in their village had been waiting three years for word from her husband.
"But what if that pig Bobrikov drafts Timo into the Russian army while we're sitting on our hands?" Father said. Bobrikov was the governor general of Finland who had been appointed by the Russian czar, Nicholas II. Though many people in Kuopio tolerated Russia's influence over their country, Father was convinced that young men would soon be shipped off to fight in foreign wars. "Give them enough time," he said, "and we'll all be speaking Russian."
Mother shook her head. "As much as I'd like my own farm, I don't care if Nikolai Bobrikov drafts us all into the army and declares Russian the official language of the Christian world. If this family moves we are moving as one."
Now, in the mine, the steady rhythm of Matti's hammer reminded him of the engine that had pushed their ship across the ocean. Most of the passengers were young men. To them the voyage was a week-long party, and they danced to an accordion and sang and gambled. Timo and Father joined in the fun, but Matti decided to hold his celebrating for their journey's end.
From the Hardcover edition.