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Sisu and the Third Golden Cuckoo: A tribute to Finland’s centennial, 1917-2017: Part 1

Published on November 10, 2017 3:33PM

The Kalevala, the Finn book of legends and mythology, forms a powerful motif for Finn culture.

The Kalevala, the Finn book of legends and mythology, forms a powerful motif for Finn culture.

Publication of the Kalevala, Finland’s epic, helped inaugurate Finland as a nation

By Ruth Elaine Jutila Chamberlin

Observer columnist

How cuckoo is this? Life goes cuckoo, and a golden cuckoo sings, “Joyance!”

Atlanta, Georgia, mid-1980s. We were hum-happy, so it seemed. The kids, ages 10-17, kept things hopping, skateboarding, swimming, starring in musicals. We sat down for supper every night. Kids set the table, brought in casseroles, poured water. (One jokester froze flies in the ice cubes, then grinned, waiting for “Eeew!”) We had roots in Ireland, England, Poland, the Philippines, Korea, Africa, Portugal, Finland — ten of us, a small United Nations, getting along fine.

But we had secret struggles. I, for one, was itchy for answers. Why did I, a 45-year-old Finnish-American, born in the U.S., still feel “other,” different from mainstream U.S. culture? I grew up in Minnesota, in a mining location near Hibbing, with brothers Morris and Calvin (Dale was born later in Vancouver, Washington), among modest, frugal, old-church Finnish Lutherans who loved sauna, coffee, pulla (cardamom bread), and makkara (sausage). They didn’t play cards, dance, drink alcohol, curse, or speak loudly. Tell a lie? Never. Keep silent about something important? Perhaps. Finns had sisu — courage, no matter what. Guts. (Or plain bullheadedness, someone said with a twinkle.) I passed as a real American, but I wriggled internally, wilted at parties, felt pounded by noise or excess. I used available energy to keep two worlds from obliterating me — the old-time Finn world with its fixed enclosures, and the bigger world with its terrifying, moving boundaries. I had to leap three generations in one, to gain footing in modern times. Then the dashing Burt appeared — worldly-wise, mixed-European — and, whoosh! We got married, adopted kids from many backgrounds, and my Finnishness got smooshed.

Ph.D. in figuring out Finns

Eager to reclaim it, encouraged by Burt, I made an odd decision (a cuckoo decision, you might say). Instead of teaching and earning income, I accepted a full-ride grant from Emory University, with freedom to write my own Ph.D. program in American studies. That odd decision became a boon. It helped us all.

Study started with the Finns. Finland spent six centuries under Swedish rule and nearly lost the Finnish language. In 1809, when Russia made Finland a Grand Duchy, Finns resisted Russification. “We are not Swedes, we are not Russians. We shall be Finns!”

Finns revived their language, finding it preserved by peasants, and stirred nationalism and the arts. Physician Elias Lönnrot collected folk runos from the hinterlands and published the Kalevala. Composer Jean Sibelius and artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela brought masterpieces to international notice.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, 300,000 Finns fled poor conditions and compulsory Russian military service, coming to the U.S. to take mining and mill jobs and sign up for homesteads. At Ellis Island, Finns were called Russians, a sting to Finnish pride! But they held to their Finnishness. Dividing into “White Finns” (Lutherans, mostly Laestadian break-offs) and “Red Finns” (socialists influenced by Russians), Finns made their way to northern Minnesota and Michigan, fewer to the Canadian border, or to Florida, California, New England, elsewhere. Saunas cropped up wherever they landed.

But they weren’t the first Finns to come to the U.S.

In 1640, Finns built the first dovetail-notch log cabins in the U.S., settling New Sweden on the Delaware River.

John Morton, who signed the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania, was Finnish-American, grandson of Martti Marttinen, who immigrated from Finland in 1654 and changed his name to Morton.

Then, bitter stories. Immigrants rejecting later immigrants. Finns suspected of dire notions due to their silence. Nanny ads sniping, “No Irish need apply.” The Chinese Exclusion Act. Japanese relocation. Hatred against Jews, Poles, Germans. Indian children forced into military-type boarding schools …

Wait! Indians weren’t immigrants! We, the conquering immigrant nation, tried to “civilize” the original inhabitants, took children from parents, cut their hair, forbade native languages, beat children when they didn’t comply to rules they didn’t understand.

Adoptees and immigrants

Interruption: Our kids, having trouble? Oh! Big talks, big hugs.

The following day, I added books on adoption, mother-infant attachment, early childhood, developmental psychology. Studies merged. Adoptees and immigrants shared a big “something” — displacement. Distant from their origins, adoptees and immigrants had to bridge two worlds, devise a self-description, partly of the old world, partly of the new, while feeling different from people around them.

Why, of course our kids would struggle with identity, especially in adolescence when everyone wonders, “Who am I, exactly?” I was still wondering in middle age!

I took a break from serious reading. Despite my aversion to myth, the Kalevala drew me in. Medieval Finland, smoky hut on a rocky shore. Sauna by the lake. I braided my hair with ribbons, heard cuckoos in the woods, rode a stallion at full gallop, rowed a boat in thunder-rapids, had a 700-year pregnancy, forged the Sampo, the magic mill of plenty, broke it, flew like a giant bird, played the kantele, hallooed the birth of the Child.

Mythic characters had human traits! They fell into human straits! Snips of stories sounded like ours.

So I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation called, “Epic Adventure: Crisis and the Kalevala.” I claimed that since “crisis comes to everyone, ready or not, we might as well write it into life — in imitation of the Kalevala and of the Bible. If we compare ancient heroes’ grief with our own recent and private pain, i.e., if we put narrative to the unspeakable, we might more effectively manage crisis.”

Hmmmm. Does that work? This column begins a series, an updated narrative on the Kalevala, honoring Finland’s Centennial, Dec. 6, 2017, and bridging into the new year.

The third golden cuckoo? That was a teaser. He appears next time. I can whisper this much: He sings, “Joyance!” — no matter what.


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