Thursday, July 30, 2009

Local author makes Copper Country history come alive for kids, adults

By Michele Bourdieu

Author Deborah Frontiera, originally from Lake Linden, reads from her bilingual English-Spanish book Eric and the Enchanted Leaf: A Visit with Canis Lupis / Eric y la Hoja Encantada: Una Visita con Canis Lupis during a recent children's reading program at North Wind Books in Hancock. The story takes place on Isle Royale. Frontiera's most recent publications are for both children and adults. Read Keweenaw Now's review of them below. (Video clip by Keweenaw Now)

LAKE LINDEN -- Author Deborah K. Frontiera, originally of Lake Linden, has returned to the Copper Country this summer with two new publications based on local history: Living on Sisu: The 1913 Union Copper Strike Tragedy, a paperback novel of historical fiction for young readers, and Copper Country Chronicler: The Best of J. W. Nara, a hardcover book of Nara's historical photos, suitable for all ages and not just for the coffee table, though it makes a wonderful gift for anyone interested in Copper Country history and heritage.

If you missed Frontiera's book signings earlier this summer, she will have one more book signing from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday, Aug. 1, at the Einerlei in Chassell.

Living on Sisu: The 1913 Union Copper Strike Tragedy is in the form of a diary or journal written by a 12-year-old fictional Finnish American girl, Emma, whose family life (they live in Swedetown, now part of Calumet) and personal destiny are affected by the 1913 mining strike. Emma's diary entries begin on her 12th birthday, May 1, 1913, and end one event-filled year later. Sometimes confused, but curious about the strike, Emma gives her personal impressions of the dramatic, sometimes violent (the description of the violence is G-rated and suitable for children ages 8 and above) and tragic events of 1913. The young protagonist is deeply affected emotionally by the Italian Hall tragedy that cost the lives of 58 children and 15 adults -- crushed to death in the panic that ensued when someone yelled "Fire!" at a Christmas party given for the miners' families -- a tragedy immortalized in Woody Guthrie's famous song as well as in historical photographs, some of which are included in the book.

In this important year of Emma's life, she writes in her journal the story of how, because of the strike, she must take a full-time day job working for a wealthy shopkeeper's family in Laurium -- to pay her own family's rent for their company house -- and must attend night school for 7th and 8th grades. She also describes many details of everyday life for both adults and children -- keeping a garden and a cow in town, canning vegetables, making juustoa (Finnish cheese) and home-made ice cream, learning how to darn a sock, translating for Finnish speakers and more.

Relations between different immigrant groups among the miners are portrayed through Emma's friendship with Marie, whose family is French Canadian, Catholic and mistrustful of Finns and union members. Class prejudices are also seen through Emma's experiences with anti-union, anti-Finnish visitors to the (very kind and generous) shopkeeper's family.

Well known historical figures are woven in and out of the novel -- union heroines Big Annie and Mother Jones; James MacNaughton, general manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company; James A. Cruse, Houghton County Sheriff at the time; Clarence Darrow, lawyer for the union; Michigan Governor Ferris and more. Historical photographs add to the realistic background of the story.

Frontiera's historical details are evidence of careful research. The book includes a bibliography of sources, historical notes, an index, an area map and even a glossary of Finnish words and phrases (including sisu!) with thanks to Jim Kurtti of the Finnish American Reporter.

Parents who enjoy reading to their children will find this book provides an opportunity to explore together an important period of local history and to share with their children an appreciation for the sacrifices and contributions of so many immigrants to the Copper Country.

Anyone interested in the history of this area will appreciate the historical photos of late 19th- and early 20th-century Copper Country life taken by the Finnish immigrant photographer J. W. Nara. In collaboration with Dr. Robert O. Nara, the photographer's grandson, Frontiera has selected some of the best of these photographs, most of which come from the Michigan Tech University Archives, in her Copper Country Chronicler: The Best of J. W. Nara.

J. W. Nara, born in Finland in 1874, came to Calumet, Michigan, about 1892 and set up a photography studio there. Frontiera gives a brief biography of this talented and successful photographer, who not only produced artistic portraits of people of the time, but also street scenes; miners, loggers and farmers at work and at play; various types of buildings of the Copper Boom era; and historic photos of the 1913 strike and the Italian Hall tragedy.

Frontiera organizes the book into categories that depict aspects of daily life -- from the way people dressed to their working conditions, their recreational activities and their means of transport. The author's brief commentaries for each chapter of the book offer insights into the social and economic conditions behind the photographs. Her captions add a personal touch as she imagines, sometimes with humor, what life was like for the people in the photos or who they might be.

Frontiera now lives in Houston, Texas, but spends summers in her native Lake Linden. Visit Deborah Frontiera's Web site to learn more about her books.

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