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Book Report: Finnish Americans meet Stalin's terror; mystery abounds in a Chinese tomb

It's always fun to get a novel written primarily for adolescents and find that it works just fine for old fogies, as well.

The adolescent novels of the late Jon Hassler ("Four Miles to Pine Cone" and "Jemmy") are a case in point. Another such Minnesota author is William Durbin, a former school teacher who lives on Lake Vermilion and writes for teens -- and me, too.

I learned a great deal in reading the reprint of his earlier novel, "The Darkest Evening," just reissued by the University of Minnesota Press, ($11.95 paper). Years ago, I traveled to Finnish-American communities in Northern Minnesota and learned lots of stuff, like the meaning of "hysta napa," which means "Oh, go smell your own belly button."

I learned of the left leaning Finnish immigrants, and interviewed folks who used to go to dances at the communist dance hall just outside New York Mills.

What I didn't learn was that back in the 1930s 6,000 Minnesota Finnish-Americans left the Iron Range during the Great Depression to forge a better life in the wilds of Russia, in a state called Karelia.

Durbin tells this story from the point of view of a Finn family from Virginia, Minn., which is recruited to move to Russia to work in sawmills just starting up in Karelia. The father, is a communist iron ore miner who has been blackballed by the mining companies because of his political affiliation. He's reduced to working at the local Finnish co-op store and he's having trouble making ends meet.

Against the wishes of his wife and son Jake, he sells his modest possessions and packs up his family and heads for Russia. What he doesn't know is that Josef Stalin has started The Terror, executing hundreds of thousands of suspect Russians and immigrants he thinks just might be undermining his despotic rule.

Stalin is especially suspicious of Americans like the family from Virginia because they've been exposed to democracy, however flawed it is.

When the family arrives in Russia, comic scenes emerge, comic if they weren't so sad. They're attacked by bedbugs, can't get used to sleeping on straw ticks, are assigned to a one room apartment that had been originally designed as a toilet for several families.

The food, of course, is terrible: Black bread made out of sawdust and rye flour, cabbage soup. The kids long for the pleasures of the rough mining town they left in Minnesota.

Even worse, the father is disappointed that there's no logs to saw because the cumbersome bureaucracy forgot to get the trees cut down. (This rang true to me because a friend of mine only a few years ago set up an import business in which Siberians would saw cedar trees to order and ship to the states where they would be made into saunas. Our friend's workers called the U.S. and said there was plenty of cedar to cut, but no saws.)

And of course the Stalinists catch up with the idealistic father and his life is in danger. The family attempts to escape to Finland in an exciting conclusion to this very interesting book.

In an afterword, Durbin writes that at least one thousand Minnesotans were executed during the terror, a fact which recently came to light after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.


If you like some history thrown in to your thrillers, Steve Berry is the author for you. His new novel caught my attention because of a fairly recent trip we took to China, where we were treated to a tour of the terra cotta warriors in the ancient city of Xian.

The story goes that the first emperor of China wanted to bury his warriors with him when he died so they could "protect" him. His advisers thought this was pretty cruel seeing the warriors were all alive. So they told him to make terra cotta representations of these warriors, right down to their specific facial features and bury the terra cotta with him.

The tomb was only recently discovered and now it's a great big tourist attraction.

In Berry's new book, "The Emperor's Tomb" (Ballantine Books, $26) his hero, Justice Department operative Cotton Malone receives an anonymous note saying that Malone's friend and lover Cassiopeia Vitt is being tortured until Malone brings to the torturer an artifact that Vitt had asked Malone to keep safe.

Problem: Malone doesn't know anything about an artifact. But he has to save Vitt's life, an adventure that eventually takes him to the tomb of the terra cotta warriors.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.