Finnish North American Literature Association
Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh. Cloquet, MN: Cloquet River Press, 2005.
Munger’s Historical Novel Depicts
Finns’ Conflicts with and Contributions to America
by Beth L. Virtanen, PhD
Longtime resident of northern Minnesota, Mark Munger is not a Finn, but his
latest work, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, embodies a certain sensitivity
toward his subject that I very much appreciate. This, his third novel, captures the
strife and history surrounding the political and economic upheavals resulting from
mass immigration. It also documents the influences of International Workers of the
World politics and strife in the 1910s in the United States as the world comes into
World War and industrial forces impact industry.
Artistically, Munger captures the lives of characters at several levels of society,
from the moneyed classes to the working peoples. His characters span a wide
spectrum , from elite lawyers and businessmen who drive society and those at the
lowest levels where prostitutes service the lonely immigrants whose ethnic
counterparts remained in the home country and the morally corrupt who occupy
the questionable underbelly of the social world.
Partly a love story of an ill-fated union between the educated and pampered
daughter of an elite Finnish lawyer and a poor Finnish laborer and partly a
chronicle of the political turmoil surrounding Duluth society in the years preceding
the Great Depression, the novel is as heart-wrenching as it is subtle. Some loves
are consummated and some deferred, some unions are forged of desperation and
others of consolation, but they all capture that characteristic human aspiration for
companionship, acceptance, and passion.
The influence of the IWW on the social lives of the characters is coupled with the
burgeoning women’s movement, as well as a strong move for temperance in some
quarters. The tale takes us from Hancock, Michigan; to Duluth, Minnesota, and
environs; to World War I France and Germany; before retuning us to a farm on the
shores of Papoose Lake, Minnesota. In the process, Munger shares the frictions
among characters caused by religious and cultural differences that are common in
burgeoning immigrant societies.
The historic details of the text are accurate, but of course fictionalized; thus, the
author documents his sources at the closing of the novel and takes care to remind
his readers that this project is one of historical fiction. He explains that he wishes
“to entertain and to enlighten,” and I think he is successful in his endeavor.
The text’s limits, I think, rest with the extension of its subject matter to
incorporate, almost as afterthought, the recent discoveries through DNA testing
the facts surrounding “our babe,” who was the youngest son of John Panula,
Finnish immigrant bound for America on the Titanic. The work focuses on a group
of people caught in the midst of the women’s and workers’ rights dialogues in early
1910s Duluth; extending the narrative beyond those confines detracts from the
main storyline which is strong enough in its own right. In spite of this flaw, I
recommend the book as an excellent and entertaining work that provides a fictional
peek into the forces coming to bear on the lives of Finnish immigrants in the upper
Suomalaiset is available from your favorite bookstore or can be ordered from
Cloquet River Press at www.cloquetriverpress.com.