A Chapter From a Book I Could Never Finish

It breaks my heart that I didn't finish "The Year of Lost Men". I know now I never will.

The house on the bend, where it happened—in 1931, not 1912. The kitchen window where Linnea’s mother peered out and silently begged for help is on the left. This was my grandmother’s house when I was a child. I sat on her lap and sang here.

Whenever I visit my birthplace in the Keweenaw Peninsula, as I did last week, I’m surrounded by the leftover remnants and relics from the once-thriving copper mines where my grandfather, my great-uncles, and other old men in my family’s circle toiled and often ended up broken by the effort.

I’m reminded, too, that I once thought I could write a novel about their experiences, specifically about the tragic 1913 mine strike that changed everything. I called it ‘The Year of Lost Men’, and I worked on it for years. It’s still not finished.

When I came home I hauled out my manuscript and re-read the completed chapters. This is one of them. I may publish more here at some point, but I know now this book will never be published. Still, some of the chapters tell a tale and I want them to see the light of day.

This chapter came from my mother’s own experience. She was born Finnish and poor in the Keweenaw in 1918 and didn’t speak English until she learned it in kindergarten. She was forced to quit school after the eighth grade in order to go to work cleaning other people's houses. When the school principal heard that she wasn't coming back, he went to my grandfather and begged him to let her stay in school. What I've written here is fiction and is placed earlier to accommodate the story, but it's what I imagined might have happened.

I have other completed chapters, and I may publish them here now and then, but the book proved to be too much for me. Nobody is sorrier about that than I am. I received a grant from the state of Michigan to finish it, and I sincerely thought I would. I did tons of research about that violent, volatile year, 1913, when the unions tried to help the miners in the Keweenaw Peninsula get better pay, fewer hours, and safer working conditions—and failed. Copper prices were already dwindling, thought the miners didn’t know it, so the mine owners simply shut down the mines, throwing the entire peninsula, solely dependent on the quest for copper, into grinding, long-lasting poverty.

The ramifications on that tiny microcosm of American life were significant and heartbreaking. It broke souls. It divided communities. It changed everything. One year changed everything.

I wish, as the granddaughter and the great-niece of men I knew had tried and failed and were never thereafter the same, I hadn’t felt such personal pain. I wish I could have removed myself and stayed the disinterested chronicler. I couldn’t. If I had the energy—and the time left—I would try again. The problem is, I’m a coward. I know how this story ends.

Mr. Snow Visits the Bend

Red Eagle Location, Michigan, September, 1912

Mr. Percy Snow maneuvered his brother Harry’s Model-A around a tricky curve, clutching the steering wheel and allowing the wagon ruts to carry him deeper into the dreaded Chippewa Bend.  This was a place he’d hoped he’d never have reason to come.

As he approached the low, dirty-red house the child Anna-Liisa had described to him as the one belonging to her friend, Linnea, a nagging observation finally revealed itself:  There were no signs that any other automobile had ever entered this lane.  The road was a two-track, fit only for horses and cows and the people who led them.  He shuddered with relief as he rolled to a stop at the head of the cow path leading into the Maki yard, and tried not to think about the trip out.

He’d been uneasy from the moment he’d entered Red Eagle Location, and thought, as he drove the half-mile to the Chippewa Bend turnoff, that a wiser man would never have come in the first place.  A wiser man would, at the very least, have recognized his folly and turned around and gone home.

But nobody would ever take him for a wise man.  At that he had to smile,  there was such truth in it.

He leaned his head back and drew a deep breath, and as he did, he noticed that the sky above the trees held no wires.  These houses were still without electricity!  For reasons he could not fathom, his teeth began their annoying chatter, and his left hand shook until he gripped the door latch tightly and pressed it down.

He walked around to the back of Linnea’s house, sighing as he trudged toward the sagging porch steps.  Countless times before, he had come to houses like this one to plead his case.  So rarely had he ever won, he’d begun to take it personally.

He drew a deep breath and, catching a strong whiff of boiled fish, began to cough wildly into his sleeve.  He wiped his eyes and wrapped himself in his last hope—a cloak of deference.  He knocked softly and waited for the door to open.

He thought he had given himself enough time to prepare for this—it had been two days already since Anna-Liisa had come to him—but at the sight of Isaac Maki standing bull-like in the doorway, Percy groaned involuntarily.  He had dealt with this big Finn before—two, possibly three years ago. Same issue, different child.

The time before, Percy had been on his own turf, in his own tiny office near the front door of the grade school--the office of the principal and of the school board president (for he was both)--with his own people around him.

He shouldn’t have been afraid that day when Isaac Maki pushed open his door—but in fact he had been.  So afraid that he knew the whites of his eyes had shown huge.  So afraid that he couldn't rise from his chair to greet the man.  The argument was lost before it had even begun.

Foreign men frightened him.  After ten years in the Copper Country he’d had to come to terms with that.  It was the space they took up—greater than they needed, it seemed to him.  The way they leaned forward on stocky, muscled legs and held their ground; the way their fists, scarred and blackened from years in the mines,  punctuated the air as they stressed to him, in languages he almost never understood, that the answer was "No”.

And all he’d asked to do was educate their children.

“Who you?” Isaac Maki asked him.  “What you want?”

“Yes, hello there, yes,” Percy said, backing away a little, catching himself as he tripped on an uneven floor board and nearly fell off the tiny porch.  “I’m Mr. Percy Snow?  From the school board?  We talked before, when Matti quit—when Matti had to leave school?”

“Yah,” the man said.  He made no move to ask Percy in.  Through the open door Percy could see the man’s wife standing at the wood stove stirring her fish stew.  He prided himself on knowing, in these minutes when nothing else was clear, that in this Finnish household that pot would contain fish heads.  He’d taken care to learn a little something about the Finns, just as he’d learned a little about the Croatians and the Italians and the. . .

The woman glanced at him then, almost as if she knew what he was thinking.  “Fish heads,” he said, motioning toward the steaming pot, but no one spoke.  “I just meant. . .”

“Aaah, you people,” he heard Isaac Maki mutter, “always sticking nose.  You go.  You go away now.”

“Please,”  Percy said, “it’s about Linnea.  I’ve come about your daughter.”

Heavy footsteps shook the room and the heavy inner door began to shut. It caught on the corner of a thick braided rug, and as Linnea’s father worked to loosen it, Percy pleaded:  “Please, I beg you.  She is a bright girl.  She loves school.  She needs to go on!”

“Enough school,” Mr. Maki shouted,  “Eight years enough.  She goes work now.”

With a mighty jerk, the man ripped the rug out from under the door, and Percy saw his chance. Before he could even think about the consequences he pulled open the screen door, shot over the threshold, and stumbled into the stifling kitchen.

“Please,” he pleaded to the woman, who now had stopped stirring and was looking first at him and then at her husband.  “You must give your girl a chance—“  It occurred to him then that she might not even understand him.  Red Eagle was a company town made up almost entirely of Finns.  None of these children had started school knowing more than a few words of English.  “Sorry,” he said, and turned smack into Isaac Maki’s raised fist.

“You go out this house,” the father said through his teeth, “NOW!”

Percy pressed against the doorjamb.  The man could have flattened him,  but he didn’t. I must leave now, Percy thought. Any thinking man would. His hand flexed against the screen door. He made an attempt to push it open, he did, but as he stood in the Maki kitchen he finally knew what had really drawn him here. It wasn’t Linnea—though Lord knew he would have liked to have saved her. Linnea—wild, silly, enchanting Linnea—a miner’s wife?  My God—pity the poor man, he thought, and almost laughed out loud.

Yes, it was Linnea who had brought him here, but it was Mattias, the son, who was keeping him in this room even after he’d been ordered to leave. It shocked Percy that this was so. In the three years since Matti had quit school, he’d only once, quickly, had a word with him, and then had only seen the boy in passing.  Matti was tramming in the mine, and that thought alone was more than Percy could bear.  He reckoned he had buried any thoughts of Mattias, good and proper.

If he’d had a chance to think it through, he would have to say he was here to save all the boys—all those boys he’d had to let go, had to watch descend into those brutal red-rock bowels. And who, if he had even thought,  was going to help him save them?  This man who now held the remnants of a rag carpet in his powerful hands, who was ready to pound him flat if he didn’t leave now?  This woman staring at him without an expression he could even read, stirring a noxious fish head stew?

“You’re killing these children!” he heard himself cry out, “You’re killing Mattias!  I saw that boy’s soul. Where is it now?  And Linnea! My God, you people, think--!”

He barely felt the fingers curled around his stiff collar,  the huge palm against his back, but in the next moment he was out the door, and then he was running, running away, and he didn’t stop until he’d reached the two-track road again.

Outside the car he retched, then actually vomited. When he could, he laid his head back against the car seat and took a chance on closing his eyes. So weary. . .

Someone was at the open window, breathing hard.  He flinched, and then he heard the voice.

“Mr. Snow?" It was Linnea, shocked, looking to her right and to her left, and Percy knew that she was hoping no one else had seen him. “What are you doing here?  You go away now.  You have to go away.”

He looked up at the girl and realized that he was crying. Not just crying, but sobbing, his mouth agape and contorted, his lips pulled back against his teeth. He could feel it and could do nothing about it. He saw Linnea gasp and turn away.

He wished with all his heart that he could stop. He dropped his head against the steering wheel and tried to control himself.

“Mr. Snow? Shh now. Please!  Shh now. You have to stop now. What happened?  Where were you?”

Slowly he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he whispered. “None of it matters.  You’re going to let them kill you. You and your brother—your hearts, your souls, your. . .your very minds.”

“Who? Who’s going to kill me? My Pa? What did I do?”  She stared at him so long he had to look away. “What did you do?”

Percy wiped his eyes and tried to focus on her. He needed to say something. He cleared his throat. “What do you see when you look in the future?” he asked her, finally, without answering her question. “Doing up the whitest wash? Making up the proudest lunch pail? A pack of children and a pot of fish stew? What do you see?”

He waited, but it wasn’t the future she was trying to see. She was squinting, looking for movement in the upper windows of the house next door.

“Who told you to come here?” she said then. “Why did you have to come here?  What did you say to my Pa?” Suddenly she smacked the side of the car door, startling him.  “You ruined everything, didn’t you?  You did. You ruined everything!  I’ll never go back to school now.”

Again he needed to say something--something to hold her here. To make her listen. Something wise. But before he could say anything, she moved away. Then she was gone, running down her hollow, into her house, safe from any thoughts of freedom. He slumped against the car seat and took a deep breath.

What a foolish, foolish man he was. These people did not want saving. He remembered that last quick encounter he’d had with Mattias. He’d run into the boy in front of the post office and in the few moments he’d had, Percy had tried to convince him to return to school. The boy never said a word. Instead, he’d fixed Percy with a long, careful look. In the boy’s eyes was the kind of hostile pity one would reserve for a drunk in a ditch.

No, he thought as he ground the gears into reverse, these people don’t deserve saving.

But then he saw a flicker of movement in the Maki’s low kitchen window. He  caught the woman’s gaze as she raised the paper shade and pressed her fingers against the window. Her lips moved, soundlessly, but her eyes held him, pleading.

He nodded before he could stop himself, then turned his full attention to getting out.  Slowly, he backed down the long curving, rutted lane, holding his breath. He cried out, a small joyous yip, when the tires finally gripped the shiny tar surface of the town road and spun him toward his own place, toward his own people, taking him farther and farther away.

Buy the writer a cup of coffee

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