An Interview with William Durbin about The Journal of Otto Peltonen

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: In the acknowledgements you thank your Finnish friends who shared their stories with you. How did these stories find their way into Otto's journal?

William Durbin: The Mesabi Iron Range, the place where I've lived for the past 25 years, was a common destination for Finnish immigrants at the turn of the century. Many of the parents and grandparents of my friends experienced the same things that Otto lives through in his journal. Because of strikes or accidents or being blacklisted they left the mines just like the Peltonens did, and they started small farms on the rocky, cut-over lands of northern Minnesota.

RFA & EST: Who is your favorite character in Otto's journal? Why?

WD: My favorite character is Otto. It was fun for me to imagine what it would be like to arrive in a strange country at such a young age. I was also able to use some first hand experiences, because when I was not much older than Otto, I worked in an iron mine operated by United States Steel (the parent company of the Oliver Mining Company, which I describe in my journal).

RFA & EST: Otto's journal is filled with unsuccessful attempts to get the miners to unite for better pay and working conditions, but in the end the attempts fail and the Peltonen family starts life anew on a farm. Is The Journal of Otto Peltonen an optimistic or a pessimistic story?

WD: Though the story starts out pessimistically, I think the ultimate success of the Peltonen family in obtaining their homestead gives it an optimistic tone at the end. Unfortunately, in real life not every family was able to realize their dream of land ownership.

RFA & EST: Newspapers such as the Mesaba Ore play an important role in Otto's journal beyond the fact that they were used as wallpaper. What newspapers and other documents were most helpful to you in creating Otto's journal?

WD: In addition to the Mesabi Ore newspaper, I studied a number of other newspapers, magazine articles, speeches, interviews, books, and doctoral theses that recount the history of the Mesabi Iron Range. I was also fortunate to correspond via email with a teacher from Lehtimäki, Finland, named Heikki Honkala. Heikki helped me create a realistic picture of the Finland that Otto left behind, and he also secured the cover photo for the book from the Soini Historical Society. Other helpful sources included oral history tapes, immigration records, and mine accident statistics that are housed at the Iron World Research Library in Chisholm, Minnesota.

RFA & EST: Education, books, and reading are very important to Otto and his friend Nikko. How did the Finnish immigrants feel about the importance of education?

WD:
The Finnish people had the highest literacy rate of all the European immigrants. They not only placed a great value on reading, but they were also skilled craftsmen, and they appreciated music and the arts as well.

RFA & EST: You've written historical fiction books in both journal and non-journal format. Does the format change your writing process in any way?

WD:
Conventional fiction is developed through chapters that are linked together by transitions. However, a journal format should "leap" more from idea to idea as a real diary would. For a journal format to be realistic, it is also important to resist the temptation to tie the ending too neatly together.

RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Otto's journal one question when they finished the book, what would that question be?

WD: Can you see any potential dangers for our society if labor union enrollment and participation continues to decline as it has in recent decades?

RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Otto Peltonen?

WD: I would hope that by examining the problems that immigrants faced in 1905, young people will become more understanding of the difficulties that modern day immigrants are experiencing.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    Changes and New Experiences, Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age, Determination and Perseverance, Immigration, Human Rights, Social Studies through Literature
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