The Journal of Otto Peltonen Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
William Durbin, the author of The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant, says, "Though I have written in a variety of genres including poetry, plays, and essays, historical fiction remains my favorite. Interviewing people and searching through period newspapers, diaries, letters, books, and magazines in an attempt to capture the character of another time is both a challenge and an adventure."
In his second novel for the My Name Is America series, William Durbin succeeds in capturing the character of another time. Set in the author's own hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota in 1905, the journal weaves the story of Otto Peltonen and his Finnish family who come to America in search of the good life as father and son work in the mines of northern Minnesota.
Readers will be able to put a human face to terms such as scab labor and being blacklisted. Durbin presents graphic word pictures of terrible working conditions; management's disregard for human life; corrupt supervisors; and an iron-willed determination on the part of the mine owners to squelch any attempts that the immigrant workers might make to unionize.
Clandestine union meetings, and fellow workers and neighbors paid to spy on behalf of the Oliver Iron Mining Corporation, add intrigue to a tale of immigrant dreams and harsh realties in a new country. Mostly, though, this is a story of human resilience and hope for the future.
Fifteen-year-old Otto Peltonen, with his mother and two sisters, leaves his home in Finland to join his father already working in the iron mines of Minnesota. It is May of 1905, and the two-week crossing is wretched, with seasick passengers crowded into steerage, "the lowest compartment of the ship." Yet the promise of a better life in America, where there are "big, white houses and broad, tree-lined streets," gives the family hope.
After a joyful reunion in Duluth and a short train ride to Hibbing, reality sets in. Otto sees that their house is really a "three-room shack with a second bedroom tacked on the rear "in a squatters' camp called Finn Town. Dust from the mine covers everything, and mosquitoes swarm through the cracks in the walls. Otto's father must work long hours for low wages under dangerous conditions where miners are constantly being injured or killed. He dreams of earning enough money to buy a farm and move his family out of Finn Town.
Otto becomes friends with Kaarlo (Nikko) Nikkola, and together they go fishing and explore the town. Nikko introduces Otto to his wonderful collection of books and lets him borrow them any time he wants. Otto begins school, but decides to drop out after a year and work in the mine in order to help save money for the farm.
The miners, angry at the poor working conditions, begin to talk about Socialism and striking, but they must guard what they say because there are hired spies who can blacklist a miner so he'll never work anywhere again. Father goes to Socialist Party meetings and joins the Western Federation of Miners. When the Union submits just three demands to the mining company, the company fires 300 workers. The miners strike, but with few supporters, they gain nothing. The company hires replacement workers, and things get violent. Many Finns are blacklisted and forced to leave town. Some, like Nikko's family, must return to Finland.
Fortunately, Father has found a farm to buy and with the money he and Otto have saved is able to pay the down payment. With the extra money Father has earned from woodworking, they buy a cow, tools, and a plow and get ready to move. Their dream of oma tupa, oma lupa has become a reality.
Thinking About the Book
- Who inspired Otto to keep a journal? Why?
- What were some of the reasons so many Finnish people left their country between 1900 and 1920 to start a new life in the United States?
- How does the son's opinion of his father change when Otto goes to work in the mines?
- What is the meaning of the Finnish proverb "Oma tupa, oma lupa?" Why is it important to Otto's family?
- Why do you think the author of The Journal of Otto Peltonen, William Durbin, put the Nikkola family in this book? What happens to the family by the end of the story? Why?
- Otto and his father try hard to get the miners organized and get better pay and working conditions, but that never happens, though the family does save enough money to buy a farm. Do you think The Journal of Otto Peltonen is a story of success or failure? Explain.
- Divide the following terms among the members of your discussion group. Ask each person to define the term and explain its importance in The Journal of Otto Peltonen.
- Otto wishes he could play baseball for the local team in Hibbing, Brady's Colts, but "Mr. Brady doesn't let Finns play on his team." Why were Finns discriminated against? Read the short history of the Finns in Minnesota on the Minnesota Public Radio website . Discuss with your group why you think Finns were treated so poorly.
- Locate Lehtimäki, Finland on a map. Trace Otto's route from there to Denmark, England, Canada, Duluth, and finally, Hibbing, Minnesota. Using the mileage scale, decide approximately how many miles Otto journeyed.
- The mines in which Otto and his father worked were excavated and combined to form a huge pit known as the Hull-Rust-Mahoning. It is the largest excavation in the world and is called "the Grand Canyon of the North." See photos of the mine from the Minnesota Historical Society . Locate a picture of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. How are these two places similar? How are they different?
- There is another character in the My Name Is America series who is also an immigrant who comes to America with dreams in his head. Compare Otto's experiences with those of Wong Ming-Chung in The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner, California, 1852 , by Laurence Yep. How are these immigrant experiences in America the same? How are they different?
- Otto mentions several Finnish foods in his journal, one of which is pulla, "a sweet roll coated with cardamom and sugar." What is cardamom? Try making pulla by using this recipe .
Discussion Guide written 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.