KOTIMAA by Mark Munger


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Munger (Boomtown, 2016, etc.) concludes his Finnish American trilogy with a novel that hops between a modern assassination plot and an early-20th-century immigration experience. 

Anders Alhömaki grows up planning to inherit his stepfather’s farm in Finland’s Kainuu region. After a failed relationship with a Kale woman, however, Anders leaves his homeland behind and finds work in Norway’s copper mines. Here he gains a reputation as a boxer, though one whose head is already across the sea: “Aren’t you the one who’s always dreaming of America?” His travels eventually bring him to the mines of Michigan and Minnesota, where many Finns have settled, looking for a better life. Anders is given the opportunity to be his own man—and perhaps to find love in the roiling, immigrant-filled Upper Midwest. Anders’ story is offset by another occurring in 2017. Dr. Janine Tanninen, the daughter of an African-American father and a Finnish American mother from Anders’ Upper Midwest milieu, has married a Finnish man and moved to Finland to assist the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, a disgruntled man plots the assassination of Assistant Director of Immigration for Refugees and Migration Tarja Saariaho. Saariaho, he believes, in her role of resettling Muslim immigrants in Finland, is working to erase the country’s Christian identity. “And now I hear she’s considering a run for fucking president!” he fumes. “That woman has as much right to lead Finland as a drunk sleeping in...downtown Stockholm has to be crowned king of Sweden!” With the roles reversed—Finland an importer rather than an exporter of those looking for a better life—the story of the Alhömakis comes to a startling conclusion.

Munger’s prose capably summons the stark landscapes of the novel, which embody both melancholy and understated beauty: “Across the bleak land, a lantern twinkled in a window. He moved quickly; the rhythm of skiing as innate as walking to a young boy of the north.” It’s a sprawling novel, as one would expect from the third volume in a multigenerational immigrant saga, but Munger demonstrates an impressive amount of control as he toggles between the historical (sections 1 and 3) and the contemporary (sections 2 and 4). There is quite a bit of coincidence at work, but perhaps that is par for this genre, which usually seeks to reveal continuities between people and across time. The Anders sections, in particular, manage to evoke the deliberative naturalism of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, and Munger effectively maintains this strategy even into the sections set in 2017. His attempts to grapple with current immigration issues, including Syrian refugees in Europe and the election of Donald Trump, make for a complex yet appropriate end to a series that is essentially a long meditation on leaving home and building another life somewhere else. Fans of thoughtful, probing historical fiction should enjoy this final volume, which stands well enough on its own.

A detailed, wide-lens historical novel of Finnish Americans then and now.

Pub Date: June 25th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-73244-340-2
Page count: 363pp
Publisher: Cloquet River Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2019