Against the dramatic backdrop of McCarthyism and the civil rights movement, a young Finnish woman living in the Midwest discovers the truth about her family while hiding her own secrets.
In 1983, shy, quiet 14-year-old Danny arrives home from his Wisconsin school and discovers that Lempi, his mother, has committed suicide. As he and his father, Toivo, mourn, he discovers an old newspaper photo of his parents from the 1967 Milwaukee riots and wonders what secrets lie in their seemingly innocuous past. Thus begins debut author Frahmann’s epic, globe-spanning work of historical fiction that follows the lives of Finnish family members who struggle to right the world’s wrongs and encounter heartbreak along the way. The story flashes back to Lempi’s fury-soaked youth, filled with Vietnam War protests and anger at the FBI for terrorizing her own mother into killing herself. Pauline, a university administrator who takes Lempi under her wing, encourages the girl to marry sweet, laid-back Toivo, but even after marriage and a baby, Lempi continues to fight for what she believes in, with catastrophic results. Pauline’s interest in Lempi turns out to be quite personal: She is Lempi’s biological mother, a secret that has burdened her for decades. The story unfolds, revealing more about Risto—Lempi’s biological father, who left his homeland to work in Russia—as well as Eero, Lempi’s adoptive father, who remains haunted by the losses in his own life. Frahmann’s story is an ambitious one, and his characters—especially Pauline—are intriguing. However, the book has a lackluster tone that never quite springs to life, with passages that feel a bit too didactic to be engaging: “Pauline also introduced Lempi to the real Milwaukee—a city filled with hard-working, middle-class people who built things and came home each night to modest homes that were well kept and near leafy parks.” Dialogue struggles to balance realistic conversations with historical information, making the characters sound stilted. Overall, it’s a solid effort but one that might not be engaging enough to appeal to a wide audience.
A fascinating tale that’s held back by monotonous storytelling.