My novel, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh was researched and written between 2002 and 2004 as an attempt to highlight, explain, and fictionalize the mystery of Finnish immigrant Olli Kinkkonen’s disappearance. The question I’m often asked, as a non-Finn writing about Finnish Americana, is “Why?” Here’s the answer.
While working as a District Court (trial level) Judge in my hometown, I was asked to participate in a serial reading of Michael Fedo’s book, The Lynchings in Duluth, at a local bistro. The event was an attempt to raise money for a memorial to the horrific lynching of three Black circus workers accused of raping a white woman in 1920. In reality, the purported crime was a false report by a daughter frightened to tell her father she’d been out “on a date”. But that truth didn’t stop a mob of angry white men from hanging three innocent men.
That backstory is important because, in preparation for the public reading of the Fedo book, I researched the lynchings on a Minnesota Public Radio website. There I found a short rendition of the “other” Duluth lynching; one that took Mr. Kinkkonen’s life. Given I’d grown up with friends of Finnish heritage, given I’d spent many nights in a log cabin my high school friends and I built on an old Finnish farmstead in northern Minnesota, and given I was innately curious as to why the Finns tried to farm such an inhospitable land, I was drawn in by Olli’s story and went to work uncovering what I could about the man, his times, and his death.
I planned to write a fictionalized biography of Mr. Kinkkonen’s life story. But as I dove into the historical record at the Duluth Public Library (a wonderful treasure trove of newspaper clippings, articles, maps, photos and the like) I felt it was not my place to speculate about a real human being. Tell his story, sure. But there is so little known of Olli Kinkkonen beyond articles surrounding his death, a circumstance where he was dragged from his boarding house in Duluth’s “Finn Town”, and disappeared, it simply didn’t “feel” right making him the protagonist of a novel. I should note that, three weeks after his abduction, Olli’s tarred (not feathered) body was found hanging from a birch tree in Lester Park. After a cursory inquiry, the Duluth Police concluded he’d committed suicide. Despondent, they theorized, and embarrassed at being tarred, he’d hanged himself. As a former prosecutor, trial lawyer, and sitting judge, I thought that conclusion convenient and nowhere near the truth.
My skepticism regarding the “official” record made it even more important to me to tell the story, but not further tarnish the man’s memory. And so, Olli became a character in Suomalaiset, but only a minor one, allowing me to still tell his story but to do so in a broader context of immigration, love, the Great War, the Influenza Outbreak of 1918 and the Great Cloquet Fire.
I chose this approach for two reasons. First, as I’ve written, I didn’t think it was my place to invent a life for a victim of tragedy. In addition, there is so little known about Mr. Kinkkonen, meaning most of what I would’ve been included, if he was the central figure in the story, had to be invented. What is known about the man is that he immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, worked as a logger and laborer, and was an opponent to compulsory military service during WWI, which drew the attention of some folks who abducted and likely murdered him for his “unAmerican views” in September of 1918. That is essentially all the public record includes regarding the man. Far too slender in detail, I determined, to make him the protagonist of a novel. So, in an effort to educate, entertain, and enlighten, I invented Anders Alhomäki, a Finnish “everyman” and friend of Mr. Kinkkonen, to carry the fictional tale.
In working on the book, I was cognizant that a retired Duluth police officer was also researching Olli’s death with an eye towards writing a non-fiction book. I knew that I had to work diligently and with speed to be “first” in getting Olli’s tale into the hands of the public. I plowed ahead; cognizant I was wading into unfamiliar waters. What if the Finns hate what I’ve written? I mean, it is one thing to follow your high school English teacher’s adage “write what you know”: it’s quite another to write about an ethnicity and a history not your own. Still, Olli’s story needed telling and I was, I hoped, the man who could tell it with grace and dignity.
Since 2004 when the book was published, I’ve received positive feedback from Finnish Americans, Finnish Canadians, and Finns who’ve read not only Suomalaiset, but my sequels to Anders Alhomäki’s story: Sukulaiset: The Kindred, and Kotimaa: Homeland. My willingness to explain Olli Kinkkonen’s murder (and the larger story of Finnish migration) in historical context has brought me to Finnish festivals, allowed me to form valued friendships with folks of Finnish ancestry, taken me to Finland and Estonia, compelled me to write articles for this and other Finnish American newspapers, and is, quite simply, the best decision I ever made as a writer
In late September of 1918, Olli Kinkkonen was buried in Duluth’s Forest Hill Cemetery. For nearly a century, his remains occupied an unmarked, pauper’s grave. In 1993, the Työmies Society installed a marker at the gravesite to remember the man, his abduction, and his death.
(This essay first appeared in the Finnish American Reporter October 22, 2022 issue.)