Retired teacher and writer Katharine Johnson grew up on a rocky farm on the Mesabi Iron Range. Growing up on the Range she heard many languages spoken - including the Finnish of her immigrant grandparents - and tasted the diverse ethnic foods of friends and neighbors, whose families hailed not only from Finland and Scandinavia, but also Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, among other places.
"When writing, I dig into a deep well of family stories, ethnic lore and persistent night dreams," she said.
The discovery that her Finnish heritage also included Saami ancestry captured her imagination. The Saami are an ethnic people living mostly in the northernmost regions of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, as well as on the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They have often been marginalized by the dominant Nordic cultures who came after the Saami hunter-gatherers. The majority of Saami embraced a nomadic lifestyle as reindeer herders rather than pursuing the agricultural life of their neighbors.
The historical tensions between the Saami and the Finns and Swedes forms the crux of her first novel, "The Wind and the Drum," published this month by Beaver's Pond Press of Edina, Minn.
Set in the Finnish regions of the kingdom of Sweden in the 1670s, the story concerns a young woman named Tuuli (meaning "wind" in both the Finnish and Saami languages), who is identified from birth as the next noaidi (shaman) of her people, a wind listener and keeper of the tribe's sacred drum. The Saami way of life becomes threatened by Finnish settlers who encroach upon the land and seek to enforce a new religion, Christianity, upon the indigenous Saami.
Johnson will give a presentation based on her research in writing "The Wind and the Drum" at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Cloquet Public Library.
"In the process of writing, I have discovered that fiction is often so entangled with the truth that it is impossible to separate the two. That’s what I like about it," she said.
Johnson taught Language Arts teacher at Cloquet High School, and was later director of the school's media center. In the late 1970s, she taught Spanish during her lunch breaks. She retired in 1999.