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One Book Northland author discusses novel

When Katharine Johnson was growing up on the Iron Range, her family was known to be Finnish. All four of her grandparents had emigrated from Finland and she grew up hearing the Finnish language. But there were also hints that somewhere back in Finland, there had also been Sami ancestry. (At that time, the Sami — or Saami — people were commonly referred to as Laplanders, now considered a pejorative term.)

With some digging, family stories began to emerge supporting the scattered comments Katharine had heard and which genealogical research confirmed. Katharine's interest in the Sami simmered on a back burner for most of her adult life. Then, after retiring from her teaching career with the Cloquet school district in 1999, she finally had time to pursue her interest in writing. Soon these two interests — writing and the lives of the Sami people — were joined.

Last fall, Katharine's novel about the Sami, "The Wind and the Drum," was published by Beaver's Pond Press. The book has been chosen for the 2018 One Book Northland reading project beginning this month.

The Sami are an indigenous people of Northern Europe, living near the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. In the time "The Wind and the Drum" is set, the powerful kingdom of Sweden encompassed what is now Finland.

The 2018 One Book Northland is a joint project of the Cloquet, Duluth, Superior and Two Harbors public libraries.

Q&A with Katharine Johnson

Q: Have you always intended to write a novel?

Not really. I had written quite a few memoir pieces and short stories so I knew that I liked writing. I also knew that it could be a lot of work. The thought of writing a whole novel daunted me. When I started in all seriousness, I intended the novel to be short and fairly simple. Little did I know how entangled I would become in the Sami struggle to survive the assault on their ancient ways and culture.

I have always liked to write, but there have been long periods of time when I didn't do any. My yearning to write started after reading books like Anne of Green Gables and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was young. During my teaching years, I wrote memoir and short pieces. I think so much energy went into working with students, that I didn't have any left to consider a novel. Each writing exposed something of myself and made me strong enough to write a whole book and open myself to readers in a way that wasn't easy for a very private person.

Q: "The Wind and the Drum" is set in the realm of the Swedish kingdom. Do events in the story take place in Finland or Sweden?

I purposely left it ambiguous as to whether or not a good portion of the book took place in Sweden or Finland. During the time period of the novel, Finland was under Swedish rule. The Sami followed the reindeer and didn't consider what country they were in. They believed that the land belonged to the reindeer so were quite surprised when people like the traders and tax collectors came saying the land belonged to their king.

Q: Have any readers complained that the Swedish ruling class in your novel do not appear in the most flattering light?

So far, no one has complained. I have tried to show a balance of positive and negative. Unfortunately, it is often the people in power whose actions are most negative. The negative actions of the young king, his followers, and the gossiping townspeople are balanced through sympathetic characters, such as the women who bring Tuuli [the novel's main character] food and teach her Swedish words, as well as the butcher who befriends Aiko. Hánas's adoptive parents are good to him, yet his merchant father is torn because he is aware that having a Sami son could be a detriment to his business—a very practical concern in those days.

Q: How did you become interested in the old Sami way of life?

My first interest was learning about the religion of the ancient Sami. And the distant past is somehow more interesting to me. For some reason, I like to think about running after migrating reindeer, fishing icy rivers without modern equipment, breathing in the smoke of campfires, listening to the sounds of reindeer snorting, wolves howling, owls hooting. I could lose myself in deep dark skies with pinpoint stars and the colored dancing lights of the Aurora. All that sounds very romantic to me. There was a lot of beauty surrounding the Sami in their struggles to survive. I've never lived the life of a traditional Sami, but I am glad to be part of preserving a culture that could easily disappear in this busy world of technological advances.

Q: The Sami today have a visible presence in politics and cultural affairs in the Nordic countries. Do tensions still exist as they seek to preserve their traditional ways of life?

I do think tensions still exist. Some Sami would like to have a separate nation stretching from Norway to the Kola Peninsula. That's not going to happen even though they are a recognized indigenous group. Each country has its own Sami Parliament. Norway has been most progressive in appreciating the authority of the Norwegian Saami Parliament. The lands around Finnmark have been transferred to the Saami community living there. The right of the Sami to have their own laws and lands is always a sensitive issue. No Sami lives a completely traditional life any more. There has been a blending of the old with the new. In recent years interest has grown in preserving the joik, the duoddji (arts and crafts), the language, as well as literature and presence in the media arts.

Discrimination still exists, but not at the persecution level. On the positive side, there has been an acceptance of joiking and the history of the Sami in school curricula.

Q: What relevancy does your novel have for readers in northern Minnesota today?

I was surprised when I discovered the many parallels between the Sami and the American Indians. That's when this novel took the turn from a simple story to showing how damaging it is when a dominant society is determined to destroy another people whose culture, lifestyle or religion are not valued. The theme then became universal with current relevance.

Read more of this interview with Katharine Johnson in the spring newsletter of Cloquet Public Library, available later in April.

Johnson will talk about writing "The Wind and the Drum" at Cloquet Public Library on Sept. 30 at 11 a.m.