Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area

I bought Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area by Oiva W. Saarinen in 2000 yet have had it sitting on my bookshelf for the past seventeen years unread. To commemorate the Finnish centennial of independence this year I decided to read all of my books on all things Fennica that were heretofore unread. This one was the last major work. I still have others, but they are mainly picture books and travel albums with minimal text. Between a Rock and a Hard Place was the final work that is text-driven that I had left to read.

It pains me to say that this work was a disappointment. It was such a dry and boring account of Finnish emigration to Canada that I had no desire to read it outside of workplace mealtimes and transit trips. I feel dreadful saying this since I am a Fennophile who laps up everything Finnish. I have even met the author; it was at Varpu Lindström’s memorial service in 2012. I am glad I never told him that I had bought his book, because I would not have been able to fake that I hadn’t read it yet. Had I faked praise on an unread book I would have appeared sycophantic. I tried to like this book but was driven to sleep each and every time I picked it up. That was no exaggeration. No one escapes an honest review. I will heap praise on works deserving five-star reviews and I will tear into unedited or numbingly boring works. Everyone faces the same scrutiny. Yes, I certainly wanted to like Between a Rock and a Hard Place yet could never get through more than ten pages at a single sitting. Why did I find such a work, whose subject matter interested me enough to buy the book, so dull?

The history should have been interesting. Finns first arrived in the Sudbury area in the early 1880’s. The men worked in the mines and forests, and women were employed mainly as domestics. Single Finnish women were independent and not tied down to a family in order to settle in the new land, which is the opposite to most other immigrant women’s stories. Many women resorted to bootlegging during the Prohibition era, and I enjoyed this remark about one such woman:

“Bootlegging establishments abounded in the Donovan. On Melvin Street, Lahti Maija served beer and homebrew for young Finnish immigrants in need of evening solace. The fact that she was the wife of Herman Vick, the first policeman in Copper Cliff, only added to her reputation. Another bootlegger, Martha Hill, ran a similar operation on Eva Street. Due to a leg injury which caused her to limp, she was referred to as polkupyörä Martha (bicycle Martha).”

Saarinen included many black-and-white photos, charts and maps, and inserted biographies of renowned Sudbury-area residents throughout the text. The research was exhaustive; Saarinen consulted city archives and property records and thoroughly accounted for how the Sudbury region was settled. I found these details fascinating in themselves, yet tiresome to read. It normally doesn’t take me 23 days to finish a 328-page book. I took notes for future reads from the bibliography.

After four dud books in a row I am optimistic that my next book–an old work of Canadiana with a Christmas theme–will reinstate the desire to read again.

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