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Song of Sampo Lake

Song of Sampo Lake

by William Durbin

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For fifteen-year-old Matti Ojala and his family, Finnish immigrants in Minnesota in 1900, starting a new life in America is both a hardship and an opportunity. After a tragic mining accident kills their beloved uncle, the family turns away from on the iron mines to pursue the dream of owning a homestead in the wilderness. This means constant hard work and new


For fifteen-year-old Matti Ojala and his family, Finnish immigrants in Minnesota in 1900, starting a new life in America is both a hardship and an opportunity. After a tragic mining accident kills their beloved uncle, the family turns away from on the iron mines to pursue the dream of owning a homestead in the wilderness. This means constant hard work and new challenges for the entire family. But will it also allow Matti, the in-between child, the chance to escape from his older brother’s shadow and gain the approval of his father, which he so desperately desires?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"William Durbin’s attention to detail—both historical and fictional—make him one of today’s masters of historical YA fiction." —David Gill, ALAN/National Council of Teachers of English

"Compelling historical fiction." —School Library Journal

"A rich introduction to both an important aspect of the American experience and a memorable and immensely likable family." —Booklist

Publishers Weekly
In the rural Minnesota of 1900, a 15-year-old boy labors in an iron mine, yearning as much for his father's approval as he does for the light of day. In a starred review, PW wrote, "The author illuminates the intersection of Finnish and Midwest frontier cultures, weaving in historical detail and a memorable supporting cast." Ages 10-up. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, November 2002: Fifteen-year-old Matti comes to Minnesota with his Finnish family in 1900, homesick for the beauty of the old country but eager to help create a better, more independent life in the new one. At first the men work in a dangerous mine, to raise money for a homestead. Then they struggle to clear land in the woods and to build a cabin and a barn (and, of course, a sauna). Matti, stuck in the middle between his athletic older brother and his cute younger sisters, struggles in addition to find a way to stand out in his family. He takes a job clerking in the local general store one day a week, accompanied by his pet crow, which he had rescued after a storm. He also tutors the neighboring boys, and works hard at all of the many tasks on the homestead, from clearing the fields to hauling milk to hunting. Matti uses his brain as well as his muscles, saving his sister from drowning and surviving a blizzard, among other adventures. Assisted by a one-legged neighbor, a colorful character who sometimes has visions of the future, Matti learns much. In the end he earns his father's respect, demonstrating "sisu," a Finnish word meaning "strength, courage, and stubbornness." Durbin, the author of the historical sagas The Broken Blade and Wintering, lives in Minnesota himself and clearly knows the landscape well. As in Little House on the Prairie, the many details here of what it takes to survive in a harsh land and climate make homesteading and history come alive. History and adventure fans will enjoy this. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2002, Random House, Dell Yearling, 217p., Ages 12 to 15.
—Paula Rohrlick
Children's Literature
At the turn of the twentieth-century, fifteen-year-old Matti Ojala and his family dream of owning their own homestead. Their new life in a Minnesota mining town is just a step above the meager existence they left behind as Finnish tenant farmers. A family tragedy inspires Matti's father to file immediately for a homestead claim; he takes Matti with him to build their stump-filled, rocky quarter-section into a working farm. This is Matti's chance to establish himself as a man in his father's eyes. The challenges are great; however, with sisu, a Finnish word describing a combination of "strength, courage, and stubbornness all wrapped into one," Matti and his father manage to bring their dreams to fruition and create a home for Matti's mother and his two sisters. Unfortunately, several plot points seem contrived, notably Matti's efforts to bring about a reconciliation between his employer and his employer's wife. Nevertheless, readers who enjoy pioneer history and adventure stories will appreciate Durbin's detailed examination of Finnish-American pioneer life. 2002, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House,
— Anne Marie Pace <%ISBN%>0385327315
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-Matti's life as a young Finnish immigrant in northern Minnesota in 1900 is full of arduous work and obligation as he struggles to please his father. The stoicism required to endure and the toil and sacrifice required for success are related honestly. All is softened by the moments of camaraderie and joy. Durbin keeps the pace moving, and the events unfold in a compelling fashion, realistically depicting the darkness and dangers for the mine workers, the rockiness of the soil, and the brutal cold winters. The issues of language, alienation, and homesickness are here, as are the kindness of strangers and the rewards of land and labor. The heritage of customs and literature of the Finnish immigrants, as well as details of the natural surroundings of the northern landscape are subtly integrated into the book. The story needs both and they never override the characters. Matti's parents, brother, and twin sisters are lively and distinctly depicted, as is the surrounding cast of shopkeeper, neighbors, and animals including a pet crow, a cat, and two mules. Recommend this novel to those who love Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy (HarperCollins, 1953) for compelling historical fiction with a male point of view.-Carol A. Edwards, Sonoma County Library, Santa Rosa, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University of Minnesota Press
Publication date:
Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Soudan Mine--Soudan, Minnesota

March 1900

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."

"Sorry, I--"

"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.

Meet the Author

William Durbin is a former high school and college English teacher and the award-winning author of ten novels, including Wintering and The Broken Blade. He lives on Lake Vermilion at the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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