Tag: Communism

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Standing Tall: Comparing ‘High Noon’ And ‘On The Waterfront’

Published in the North Central Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2008

“I have here in my hand…” said Senator Joseph McCarthy in February 1950, effectively hoodwinking the country into a hysterical anti-Communism era known as the Red Scare. McCarthy claimed the list identified 200 Communists within the American government, so he and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) spearheaded a movement to eradicate Communist spies and sympathizers from the government.

The most infamous consequence of the Red Scare was the blacklisting of workers in the entertainment industry. Ten Hollywood screenwriters and producers refused to admit to HUAC that they were Communists or Communist sympathizers and in doing so were barred indefinitely from working in Hollywood. These “Hollywood Ten,” plus one hundred more working professionals, struggled to find work for many years following their blacklisting.

Loyalties within the industry became fiercely divided, and soon writers and directors directly affected by the blacklist voiced their opinions through their films. The two most notable films that resulted from the blacklisting gave sharply contrasting, yet oddly similar views of the ordeal. These films were High Noon (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954).

Fred Zinnemann’s tense Western High Noon tells the tale of Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) defending his Kansas town from vindictive criminals hell-bent on killing Kane. It’s a simple task, complicated by the fact that his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly) is a pacifist Quaker trying to talk him out of it. Plus, the deputies who were once loyal to him choose not to fight with him out of fear and cowardice.

Kane tries to rally support from the townsfolk, who cower in the shadows and resent his presence. Amy then threatens to leave him because of her pacifist principles (so much for “‘til death do us part.”) Ultimately Kane decides to take on the bandits alone, despite his wife’s wishes and despite knowing that if he left, the bandits would probably leave as well.

High Noon is the classic American Western. But unlike the traditional Westerns of the time, it takes place in almost real-time, heightening the tension for the viewer as we watch Kane desperately try to defend his town and his pride. Like Rear Window, not much action happens until the final act, when the boiler-pot full of despair and helplessness finally explodes. More importantly, it is an allegory of the fight against blacklisting, which I will discuss shortly

In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prizefighter-turned-longshoreman who works for a gang that controls the New York City waterfronts. Terry inadvertently helps the gang kill a police informer, who happened to be his best friend, and his conscience starts to take a toll.

Terry is indicted by the police but refuses to testify against the gang, fearing deadly retribution. His friend’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a local priest try to convince him to work against the mob, but it’s not until Terry’s brother Charley, a mobster who is ordered to kill Terry to stop him from testifying, is killed when Terry decides to become an informer. Terry eventually testifies against the mob, breaking the waterfront code of not ratting out one’s friends and earning the scorn of his fellow dock workers.

On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando. His performance is widely regarded as one of the best in history (you might recognize his “I coulda been a contender” speech), while the film itself placed eighth on the American Film Institute’s all-time list.

Another key reason for the film’s greatness is its symbolism: a train whistle blows as Terry “blows the whistle” on the death of his friend; Terry carries a hook on his shoulder after he is beaten up by the mob to signify a Christ-like suffering. The allegorical nature of this film elevates it from a by-the-numbers melodrama to a thoughtful masterpiece.

These films can stand alone as two classic and important American films, but they, as well as a few other films at the time, share a unique purpose in their making. Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon, was a former Communist who was called before HUAC to identify other Communists in Hollywood. Foreman refused and was blacklisted, so he went into exile in Britain, recognizing a lack of motivation among his colleagues in Hollywood to combat the spread of McCarthyism and to speak up for their blacklisted friends.

With this in mind, the subtext of High Noon becomes clearer: the townsfolk (people in Hollywood) are afraid to support Kane (the blacklisted) when the criminals (McCarthy and HUAC) come to town. You’ll have to watch the film to see what happens, but rest assured, Foreman felt that he would survive the national nightmare, and did: he co-wrote the Academy Award-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with a fellow blacklisted screenwriter.

On the Waterfront tells the same story through a different lens. Director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg both named names at the HUAC hearings – like Terry did in the film –and their peers condemned them for it. By portraying Terry as the hero when he testifies against the villains in the film, Kazan and Schulberg justify their own real-life actions.

Since these films tell essentially the exact same story, which view is more justified? Both have a strong central character defying the persuasive masses to do what they think is right. Is the man who exposes injustice justified in his revelation, even if it means betraying his friends? Or are the masses, who refuse to help their leader because they don’t agree with him, more justified? It’s the job of the viewer to decide.

Fifty years later, these films are no less relevant today than they were back then. If anything, these films defend the right of art to give voice to a momentarily unpopular opinion that would have otherwise been ignored. They also demonstrate the power film has to launch new ideas into the public consciousness, ready or not. New and unpopular ideas abound in our culture, regardless of how many people vilify them (I’m talking to you, Bill O’Reilly), and it’s important for filmmakers to capture these ideas for humanity’s and history’s sake.