Living on Sisu:
***** 5 stars – Twelve-year old Girl’s Diary Makes 1913 Copper Strike Live Again
The story is well known. During a children’s Christmas party at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan in 1913, someone shouted “Fire!” A panic ensued, and approximately 58 children and 15 adults were crushed to death in a staircase while trying to escape. The tragedy has been told over and over, and it is generally retold in the context of the copper strike in the region at that time. Rumors spread that the mining companies intentionally caused the disaster. Others believe it was a mistake, or a practical joke that led to tragedy. In any case, the disaster was so unbelievable that it still lives in the minds of Upper Michigan residents, but few have told it so successfully as Deborah Frontiera in her new novel “Living on Sisu.”
Frontiera successfully recaptures the events of the 1913-1914 copper strike by members of the Western Federation of Miners to get better working conditions and wages for the miners of the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. A stroke of genius led Frontiera to tell the story from twelve-year old Emma Niemi’s perspective. I say genius because children ultimately were the victims of the strike, yet they themselves were confused about the causes, political implications, and general right or wrong of the situation. The main character, Emma Niemi, is the U.S. born daughter of Finnish immigrant parents. Her father does not like socialists and resists joining the Union so he will not be thought a “Red Finn,” but ultimately when a friend dies in the mine and he has not earned enough money to purchase his own land after ten years, Mr. Niemi decides to join the strike. Emma continually tries to understand the reasons for the strike and both the miners and union’s viewpoint and the mining company’s position by reading papers that present both sides. The novel’s back cover states that Frontiera, “like her character Emma, found it difficult to “sort out” the multiple sides of the 1913 strike.” It is this difficulty and Frontiera’s willingness to depict both sides of the conflict that makes “Living on Sisu” a successful story and likely to become an Upper Michigan classic. Frontiera explores the confusion, beliefs, fears, and dreams of the people of Calumet in that fatal year. Her historical research is impeccable, but her storytelling gift is always at the forefront of the book.
While Frontiera never lets politics or history get in the way of the story or its characters, she provides many historical and political sources outside of Emma’s diary. She inserts numerous historical photographs throughout the book to help readers envision life in 1913-1914 in Calumet and Laurium. She also includes a dictionary of Finnish words used in the novel, a list of the principal historical characters in the book, a list of books about the strike, and an essay about the history of the Copper Country from the beginning of mining until the closing of the Calumet & Hecla mines in 1968. Without taking sides, she mentions the pluses and negatives of the mining companies and what the people wanted. She tells us “C&H was like a good parent, but the time comes when children want to stand on their own.” Socialist ideas were becoming more popular, mines opening in Montana and Arizona were competing with the Michigan mining companies, and labor unions arose. Amid all this chaotic and changing world, Emma Niemi grows up and tries to help her family.
Because the story is told from Emma’s viewpoint, it would probably be classified as a children’s book, suitable for ages ten and older. It reminds me of the classic historical children’s novels I loved as a child—books like “Johnny Tremain”—where a child is growing up, trying to understand the political events and adult world, and often trapped within the conflicts. As an adult, I was just as involved in the story as if I had been twelve when I read it. I especially admired Emma’s character; she is not perfect, but she is a good girl, a good daughter. She never questions her parents or the need to help them. When her parents’ income drops because of her father being on strike, he remarks that they will be “living on sisu.” Sisu is a Finnish word with no English equivalent that roughly means determination, guts, or perseverance in the face of adversity. As a twelve-year old girl, Emma has more sisu than most children today. When her father goes on strike, she helps her family by finding work in a store; later she ends up working full-time as a maid while taking evening classes to keep up with her schooling. She will serve as a good example to children today of hard work, loyalty to family, and the dream to get ahead in life. In our own current harsh economy, Emma Niemi reminds us of what our immigrant ancestors underwent to improve their lives when they came to this country, and she inspires us also to have common sense, to listen to people and try to understand their viewpoints, to look for the truth, and never to give up.
By retelling the Copper Union Strike and the Italian Hall Disaster from the view of Emma, Frontiera has made the period and people come alive again. We march down the streets waving the American flag with Big Annie, we know what it is like to work as a maid in a wealthy home, we feel the pain of a miner dying and the toll it takes on his wife and children, we recall the dream our ancestors had of a better life in America, and in the end, we find our own Sisu.
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