title page image

MINGLING VOICES

Series editor: Manijeh Mannani

Give us wholeness, for we are broken. But who are we asking, and why do we ask?

— Phyllis Webb

National in scope, Mingling Voices draws on the work of both new and established poets, novelists, and writers of short stories. The series especially, but not exclusively, aims to promote authors who challenge traditions and cultural stereotypes. It is designed to reach a wide variety of readers, both generalists and specialists. Mingling Voices is also open to literary works that delineate the immigrant experience in Canada.

SERIES TITLES

Poems for a Small Park

E.D. Blodgett

Dreamwork

Jonathan Locke Hart

Windfall Apples: Tanka and Kyoka

Richard Stevenson

The dust of just beginning

Don Kerr

Roy & Me: This Is Not a Memoir

Maurice Yacowar

Zeus and the Giant Iced Tea

Leopold McGinnis

Praha

E.D. Blodgett

Musing

Jonathan Locke Hart

Dustship Glory

Andreas Shroeder

andreas schroeder

Dustship Glory

based on a true story

AU Press logo

Published by AU Press, Athabasca University

1200, 10011 – 109 Street

Edmonton, AB T5J 3S8

ISBN 978-1-926836-22-5 (print)

ISBN 978-1-926836-23-2 (PDF)

ISBN 978-1-926836-39-3 (epub)

A volume in the Mingling Voices series:

ISSN 1917-9405 (print) 1917-9413 (digital)

Cover and book design by Natalie Olsen, Kisscut Design.

Printed and bound in Canada by Marquis Book Printing.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Schroeder, Andreas, 1946

Dustship glory / Andreas Schroeder.

(Mingling voices, 1917-9405)

Also issued in electronic format.

ISBN 978-1-926836-22-5

1. Sukanen, TomFiction.

I. Title.

II. Series: Mingling voices

PS8587.C5D87 2011 C813’.54 C2011-900264-7

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities.

Canada Book Fund logo

Please contact AU Press, Athabasca University at aupress@athabascau.ca for permissions and copyright information.

This book is dedicated to my father,

Ernst Schroeder, who worked as hard and sailed as far

Thomas

Damianus “Tom” Sukanen (born Tomi Jaanus Alankola)

PREFACE

When I first encountered the Sontianen I was driving down Highway #2, south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, just beforesundown, and I caught sight of her, in full silhouette, as I came up over a rise. She was standing upright in a fallow wheat field, flanked by a clutter of nondescript sheds and machinery (the beginnings, I eventually discovered, of anopen-field museum that had never quite gotten off the ground), and she was so utterly and splendidly incongruous and absurd, this deep-sea freighter in the middle of the bald prairie, that every story-telling gene in my body immediately stood to attention. A check of the records at the Regina Public Library’s Prairie History Room the next morning seemed to confirm my luck. There were fistfuls of newspaper stories on file dating all the way back to 1932 about this strange shipand about Tom Sukanen, the obstreperous Finnish-Canadian homesteader who had built her and whose outlandish inventions and ideas had kept his neighbours in a constant state of astonishment and uproar well through the Dirty Thirties. When I shortly thereafter managed to track down a Mr. “Moon” Mullin, nominal caretaker of the Sontianen, I seemed to have found another goldmine of Sukanen lore. And finally there was Ms. Brenda Niskala, a Saskatchewan poet of Finnish-Canadian descent, who proved able to provide me with introductions to various former homesteaders who had actually known Tom Sukanen in his lair. For a few weeks of reckless optimism, I actually thought I might have run into a story virtually full blown, every writer’s fondest fantasy, having only to set pen to paper and take dictation.

Such appearances probably always deceive, and this one proved no exception. Cross-checked and cross-examined, the huge file of Sukanen mythology dwindled rapidly. The many newspaper stories turned out to be largely elaborations of a few superficial seed-pieces, which themselves brimmed with inaccuracies. Old-timers’ recollections often proved secondhand and hazy. There had clearly been an attempt, by certain people, to soften and warm Sukanen’s caustic personality until he’d become alarmingly reasonable and even altruistica virtual St. Christopher. And a welter of tall tales, clinging to the statistical record of Tom Sukanen’s deeds and misdeeds, had swamped entirely whatever might have been known about the inner man.

All this, fortunately, did no actual damage to the story I was interested inthe man behind this mysterious venture, his times, his rough-hewn genius, his visions as preposterous as his ship standing like a raised finger amid the wheat and the dust, in its own way as unapologetic and absurd a monument to the indomitability of the human spirit as any skyscraper, pyramid, or Taj Mahal. But it did oblige me toinvent what had become erasedthe fine-line details, thetelling remarks or gestures, the motives, mainsprings, bridges, and dead-ends, all that sub-text and infrastructure which every writer needs as much as story, plot, and dramatic event. These I reconstructed from interviews, hypothesized by gutinstinct (though I did stop short of presuming to know Sukanen’s inner thoughts), basing my hunches on a growing sense and appreciation of this man whom I had intuitively recognized, and who kept making more and more sense to me as I kept digging and sifting and interviewing. (I might add, however, that I never then or since felt the need to explain away anything about Sukanen’s obsessionskyscrapers, pyramids, or Taj Mahals have never gained anything by such explanations and are only trivialized by the attempt. What I have tried to do is merely to clarify the forces at work in the man and the decade, leaving the reader in a better position to make whatever judgements he may deem necessary . . .)

So, when the needs of this saga had finally been met, several years of research and writing later, I found I had written a novelnot (in a narrow, technical sense) a biography. I had used poetic licence wherever necessary. I am, therefore, convinced that this portrait bears a closer resemblance to the real Tom Sukanen than most of his contemporaries, friend or foe, have been prepared to countenance.

The same is not true, and intentionally so, of the book’s “witnesses.” These are composites, mixed and matched in part to protect their privacy and also to sharpen the issues. Everything these witnesses say was indeed said to me by someone at some point during my interviews, but not necessarily in the language, manner, or context presented here.

— Andreas Schroeder [ Mission, B.C., 1985 ]

1

THE BOB KLEPPNER PICNIC

[ Summer, 1934 ]

When the clutch of hecklers, drunks, and other idle farmers finally stopped on a knoll somewhere southwest of the one-elevator town of Manybones, Saskatchewan, they were hot, sour, and lost. The bartender’s directions had been sloppy or misunderstood, and they seemed no closer to finding Tom Sukanen’s hidden coulee now than when they’d piled out of the Beverage Room of the Manybones Hotel earlier that afternoon to deliver, personally, a little token of the “community’s support and appreciation.” For three hours they had criss-crossed ruined grainfields and blown-out summerfallow in Kleppner’s unwieldy Bennett-buggy, and by the time someone had come up with the bright idea of listening for old Sukanen’s hammering, the horses were lathered and sore. Now they all stood in the muttering wind, backs turned against the grit driving off an adjacent field, waiting. Gusts whorled the dead grass underfoot like an animal’s fur being brushed the wrong way. In the distance, farther southwest, a steady tapping sounded incongruously like a cooling stovepipe or a dripping phantom watercock.

“That’s gotta be him,” Kleppner said.

“You think that’s him?”

“Let’s go,” Kleppner pointed. “Right along that ridge.”

No one had any better ideas, and Bob Kleppner, as usual, seemed the most eager to kick up dust. The gangly fieldhand had never managed to stake his own farm and had never worked more than sporadically for others, even during the bumper harvests of 27 and 28. Since the worsening of the 1930 drought he had spent most of his time riding the rails and serving time. The Kleppners of south Pennant Junction were known to the business community as strictly “cash-’n-carry folk.”

As they bounced along old tractor tracks skirting a dried-up alkali pond, the beat grew steadily sharper and more insistent. None of them had ever heard anything quite like it. It had a strangely alien rhythm, beckoning yet threatening at the same time, and it went on and on without the periodic interruptions one might have expected. “Goober sounds like he’s playin’ music, puzzled Willard Simpson, who had once played trumpet in the town band. After a few miles they no longer had to stop the horses to hear it, and ten minutes later the horses began to prick up their ears and switch their tails nervously. Then, without warning, they rolled over a low hummock and there it was.

“Holy fuck,” Willard allowed.

“Now don’t that jest jar yer preserves!”

“What I wanna know is, how’s he gonna get that damnfool thing outta there,” marvelled one of the Stanton boys from Snakehole Lake. They stood on the edge of the coulee’s rim like dogs sniffing down a gopher hole.

Below them, in a small field almost half the coulee’s size, a large ship lay in several sections amid log and timber supports like a great beached whale, struck broadside by the full blaze of the late-afternoon sun. Her tarred bulwarks glowed a liquid amber, and her smokestack shimmered like molten brass. Off her starboard bow stood a log barn, and beside the barn, at a flaming forge, a wild-looking man with hair flying and a short-handled sledgehammer in each hand was beating a complicated tattoo on a thick sheet of steel, pounding it slowly into a roll. His bare chest and shoulders gleamed with sweat, and his face was expressionless with soot. “So that’s how he gets that beat,” Willard exclaimed, grinning. “Two hammers.”

“In the middla the bald goddamn prairie. Th’ old Finn musta drunk outta his own biffy.”

“Hey, Noah!”

If Sukanen had registered their coming at all, he gave no sign. “Hey, Noah!!”

“Bugger’s deaf as a doornail,” Kleppner snorted. “Come on, let’s get down there and turn up his ear-horn.”

They scrambled down the steep bank and into the yard, where Frankie Crompton, always the runt and pariah of every group he’d ever tried to join, lost his balance and tumbled almost to the old homesteader’s feet, ending up on his rear, sprawled ingloriously against a cooling vat. The pounding stopped abruptly. Crompton scuttled back out of range, amid hoots of laughter.

“Hey, Noah! We brung ya the second monkey!”

“Every good ape deserves another!”

“Hey, come on now, fellahs, give’m a break. You can see plain as day this Commie’s ape enough fer two!”

Tom Sukanen had not moved. His face remained impassive, but his eyes darted from throat to throat. He said nothing.

“Wanna sail this rig back to paradise, do ya, Noah? Folks around here’s not good enough for ya, eh?”

“Think you got a corner on the rain or somethin’? You figure when she comes you gonna get ’er all?”

“Say, Kleppner, how d’ya spell ‘ahoy’?” Willard called, scribbling busily on the ship’s side with carpenter’s chalk. “Ship Ahoye.”

“Ship of fools,” Kleppner said, watching Sukanen carefully. “Make that ‘ship of fool.’

Sukanen’s fists had tightened on his hammers, and his jaw was stiffening visibly. It was difficult to keep an eye on everyone. Several men were nosing around the ladder leading up to the hull’s lower deck, and another looked ready for mischief by a pile of anchor chain. Crompton stuck his head into an unfinished boiler and brought down a shower of small pipes which had been loose-fitted into it.

“Hey, Klepp! How d’you suppose he’s ever gonna launch this thing?”

“Plain as the nose on your face, Willie-boy. It’s been rainin’ in his head for so long, he’ll just shove it up his ass and push off.”

Their howls of laughter drowned out Tom’s dark mutter underneath his breath.

“What d’ya say? Speak up, Noah, God can’t hear ya!”

“Maybe he’ll just fire up that little three-wheeler over there and tow the dad-blame thing to paradise!”

“Yeee-hoo!” A man-sized homemade tricycle stood in a patch of Russian thistle by the barn. Several men ran for it, but Kleppner got there first. He clambered up into the seat and settled his boots against what appeared to be a propulsion bar.

Now how d’you figure this doggone contraption works?”

Willard Simpson had been considering that. “Kick ’n pull on those handles, boyo. In and out. In and out. Just like Saturday night!”

Kleppner grinned. “Well then, the least we can do to beneighbourly is give it a little kick in the nuts!”

He gave a concerted heave, and the tricycle leaped from its thistle patch like a startled rabbit. He flung his legs wide for balance and heaved again. The front wheel reared, wobbling dangerously. He had just clenched his muscles for a third triumphant heave when something hard and red-hot hit him full on the neck, sprawling him into the dust. The tricycle spilled over on top of him.

“Egyptians!”

Suddenly the air was alive with whizzing, hissing projectiles, fist-sized smoking comets, of which many were finding their marks with painful accuracy. “Now this is finish! Yaa! Riittava! The shipbuilder had spun about and was hurling glowing chunks of coal as fast as he could scoop them, bare-handed, out of the forge. “Damn-it bastards! Saatanan varkaita! His arm pumped like a steam piston, and the coals flamed and spat in all directions. The men bunched and then scattered, but the only way out was straight back up the bluff; the forge was too strategically placed. Yelps and curses filled the air. Sukanen aimed particularly for open shirt collars, wide boot rims, and the folds of loose neckerchiefs. The caramel smell of burnt flesh drifted through the coulee. “Stink-it, seagulls! Perkelen bummit! You just be fly-it home, yah! Run-it gone like rats! Go drown-it you in hell, pakana! No room for you in this!”

“Kick the coals into the shavings! Kick the coals into the shavings, Willie!” yelled Kleppner, still extricating himself from the tricycle, but Willard had already scrambled back up the bluff, nursing a burn on his arm. “Jesus, what a chickenshit crew!” He dodged another sizzler that barely missed and then headed at a dead run for the ship’s bow, which was out of the line of fire. A jagged clump caught him full on the chest and another bounced off his shoulder, but neither managed to ignite his clothes. As he slid in under the upswept stem he was already clawing at his shirt pocket.

“Look out, Klepp! He’s comin’ after ya! Heads up!” The shout came from the ridge, but from his position, Kleppner couldn’t see anyone. One sweep of his arm had pushed enough shavings into a pile, but his matches wouldn’t stay lit in the wind. “Hey, Klepp, where are ya!” The fourth match flared in the hollow of his hand and held. The shavings caught. A flurry of wind startled the flames into bloom. “Heads up, Klepp! He’s gotta sledge!” Kleppner grinned. The flames tongued at the bow.

Sukanen’s body, when it fell, dropped from its perch so directly above Kleppner that there was no warning shadow at all. The grinning arsonist barely had time to inhale the breath that Sukanen’s boots knocked back out of him when they hit his chest. He fell back hard and rolled into the blaze. Sukanen grabbed him by belt and collar and rolled him out, then rolled him back in again, smothering flames. Sparks and smoke snapped and billowed. Sukanen pushed and pulled the half-conscious man through the shavings like a rake, furiously clearing a firebreak around the bow. Again and again he flung himself full length onto the fire, using Kleppner for the same purpose, turning him over and over across the shavings. The flames’ reach among the now isolated shavings soon slowed and guttered, but their hold on the lower bowstem proved more tenacious. Melted tar had begun to drip down along the bow, feeding them from above. The smoke thickened and roiled, turning an oily black. Sukanen flung Kleppner away, turned, and ran for the cooling vats. There was one on each side of the forge, two open thirty-gallon drums filled with black, greasy water. He hauled the nearest off its supports as if it were made of cardboard, staggered back, and hurled it against the bow with a terrific crash. For a moment the flames disappeared in a burst of dark brown steam. Sukanen didn’t stop to check theresult. He leaped for the second vat, more tightly wedged between the forge’s stone base and a considerable heap of scrap iron which had piled up on either side of the anvil over the past six years. The vat rose, then jammed, spilling water. Sukanen bellowed, clenched his teeth, and tore the drum from the scrap pile in a welter of angle iron, steel rods, and plate, trailing a bent wheel rim and two mangled valve covers as he lurched back towards the ship. The flames had wavered back up the bow, but with diminished strength. Sukanen upended the cooling vat, valve covers and all, then plunged through the steam to slap down the remaining flames and sparks. When a thin column of fire threatened to revive along the bow’s port side, he grabbed Kleppner’s still inert body and scrubbed at the flames with the fieldhand’s coveralled back, scraping down still-glowing embers and char. Finally he dropped him to one side and put out the last of the fire with his feet, stamping and scuffing until only blackened cinders remained. The pall of smoke across the coulee eddied and thinned.

For an uneasy moment, only the coulee’s grasshoppers sprang and whirred. The shouts from the ridge had stopped. Sukanen sat with his back to his ship, breathing heavily, but keeping a sharp eye on stray wisps of smoke that still rose now and then from the ashes. The palms of his hands were burnt to the raw flesh, and his coveralls were stiff with blood and soot. Kleppner had rolled over onto his side and was trying to sit up, groaning with each attempt. His face and arms were scorched and black, and the hair on his head had been singed almost completely off. Neither man seemed inclined to say much of anything.

“So,” Sukanen grunted, finally, more to himself than to the harvest-hand. “This be-it finish now.” He had been staring in the direction of the ridge and now turned to Kleppner, who was still gasping and coughing heavily. “You friends, they have-it leave you gone.”

Kleppner couldn’t or wouldn’t turn his head. “They’re . . . they’re up . . . there all right. Somewhere. Goddamn . . . damn . . . bunch . . . of dishrags.”

Sukanen looked for a long time as if he were searching for something on the ground around his feet. Finally his voice was flat, expressionless. “I don’t be kill-it you this times, Kleppitner. Not this times. If you be tell-it me why you come.”

Kleppner snorted disdainfully, and kicked a glimmering ember towards the ship. It landed on a length of hemp rope, but flickered and died.

Sukanen considered him almost languidly for a moment. He hadn’t moved when the ember fell onto the rope. Now he shifted his weight to his other foot, came down on his knees in front of Kleppner, and deliberately, almost hypnotically, slid his hands past the fieldhand’s collar and around his throat. His jawline tightened, and for a brief moment his eyes betrayed his still unassuaged rage. Kleppner jerked upright and kicked, aiming for the shipbuilder’s groin. Sukanen’s fists merely tightened. Kleppner gurgled and flailed. His breath rasped more and more harshly. He began to gasp. The veins and muscles on his neck stood out like twisting cord. His arms twitched and jerked.

Laiva rotta, muttered Sukanen, squeezing harder. “What you be want-it from me, you bilge-rats?”

Kleppner’s mouth opened and closed like a drowning fish.

“What you be want-it!” Sukanen shouted. “What you be do-it here!” He released Kleppner’s throat as abruptly as he had grasped it, and seized both his ears instead. “What for you all be come, and break and this!”

Kleppner gagged, coughed, guzzled air. His chest heaved like a forge bellows. He pushed himself up on one arm and tried to roll to his feet, but the arm folded and he collapsed back against the ship. For several moments he lay still, frothing. His face was starched with hate.

“Goddamn . . . piss-assed . . . rawhead!”

Sukanen waited, attentive.

“Just who the . . . hell . . .” Kleppner’s rasp thinned, receded slowly. He tried once more to get up, fell, then managed to push himself slowly into a crouch, steadying himself against the bow. “Just who d’ya . . . think . . .” An attack of coughing forced him once more to his knees and he doubled over, choking. Sukanen continued to wait. Finally Kleppner’s gasping slowed, and he regained enough breath to twist himself into a sitting position, facing the shipbuilder. He spat more cinders and dirt onto his coveralls.

“Just who the hell . . . d’ya think . . . y’are?”

Sukanen unstiffened, perplexed.

“It’s you that’s . . . buildin’ . . . that’s buildin’ the goddamn thing! Eh? It’s you that’s . . . buildin’ it . . .

Sukanen regarded Kleppner doubtfully, as if the incongruously plucked and singed harvest-hand had just handed him a hammer and called it a saw.

“What makes ya . . . think . . . you’re so piss-assed special!”

A glimmering ember at Sukanen’s feet popped and died.

“Hey, Klepp! What’s goin’ on! Need any help down there?”

Both men glanced towards the ridge, but the ship blocked their view. Kleppner shrugged and painfully hitched up his coveralls.

“So, if you don’t want no trouble, don’t . . . bloody well go askin’ for it. Don’t . . . hang it out if ya can’t handle ity’know what I mean?”

He fingered the cinders crusting his face and then pushed himself carefully to his feet, wincing as shirt and coveralls stretched across burned skin. His cap was lying in the ashes, almost charcoaled. He retrieved and settled its remains gingerly on his head. At the ship’s stern he stopped to pick up Willie’s neckerchief. “An’ there’s a . . . nother thing too. There’s farmers around here gettin’ . . . gettin’ pretty cooked up about all those . . . thistles . . . you’re lettin’ run wild in your summerfallow. There’s some . . . there’s some that’s about . . . had it, downwind. Ya know what I . . . mean? You better do somethin’ about it. Pretty damn . . . quick.” He spit out a tongueful of ash. “Or there’s some people around here . . . figure they’ll know the reason why.”

He disappeared behind the starboard side of the ship and didn’t reappear until his head jerked into view above the smokestack, halfway up the coulee’s side. Sukanen watched impassively as he struggled up the rest of the bluff, towards the group of men now visible on the rim above him. As they helped him over the edge he stopped and looked down once more towards Sukanen.

“Cause we know a raised finger when we see one, Commie prick!!”

It was after word of the “picnic” (as the incident came to be called) spread that Sukanen finally turned his back on them allall the gawkers, hecklers, mischief-makers, even the well-wishers. He did this quite literally, shifting his forge and workbenches and all his scaffolding in such a way that no one was any longer able to see his face. If they became too persistent or offensive, he simply climbed into his ship and closed the hatch. For several years it became a regular game for the idlers of the district to try to snap a photograph of him with his full face showing, but no one, it appears, ever succeeded.

But of course they kept coming, relentlessly, whether he liked it or not. They came in pairs, in small groups, even occasionally by the bus- or wagon-load, young men with their girls, whole families out for a Sunday drive when the wind let up a little and the dust died down. Some came out of plain curiosity, others to jeer or taunt. Most of them just milled about at his gate, safely out of range, gaping at the big ship and shaking their heads. But occasionally there were the small, drunken packs of men, startling for the depth of their instinctive hatred, whose harsh and raucous voices always sounded like the baying of oncoming bloodhounds.

2

CORPORAL G.T. MORTIMER

[RCMP, retired ]

Oh sure, certainly, I knew all about that so-called “picnic.” There were plenty of farmers at loose ends in those days, broke or about to go broke, and all the farm-hands (harvest-hands, I think they called them in that part of the country, or even field-pitchers, if my memory serves me right)yes, and all the harvest-hands out of work as well. Naturally tempers got a bit frayed under such circumstances. We had to look in on that hotel on a number of occasions during those years, to calm down a few of the more enthusiastic arguments. But there were no complaints laid in connection with that “picnic” business, so we just decided to let sleeping dogs lie.

No, I had no reason to look up the old fellow until, oh, fairly late in the gameit would have been the winter of 38, probably October, maybe early November of 1938, if my memory serves me right. I’d received a call from the councillor of Manybones, can’t recall his name offhandbig, broad-shouldered fellow, chaired the local school board, I remember that, and he was the Justice of the Peace for the district. Yes, he’d called the station to pass on various complaints there’d been about this Thomas Sukanen.

Said he seemed to be in rough shape and starting to act peculiar. Oh, all sorts of things: allegations about stampeding his neighbours’ cattle, painting his fenceposts with blood, threatening children with a butcher-knife. That sort of thing. Said he thought I ought to have a look into it. Well, I was on my way up into that area anyway, had to look into a safe-blowing job at Sceptre, so I said I’d see what I could do.

It took me quite a while to find himthat was an odd winter, winter of 38. It was cold enough to weld your eyeballs shut, but the dirt was still blowingthere hadn’t even been enough rain to cake the surface dust. Any snow we got just added a little colour, that’s all. And the wind kept bluffing and shiftingI had a heck of a time trying to keep my bearings. He lived in a deep little coulee about ten miles southwest of Manybonesjust a tiny branch off Broken Valley, reallythe sort of place you just wouldn’t see until it’s right in front of your nose. And I was scouting for it from down in the valleymight have been better if I’d been up on the ridge, I suppose. I was looking for that round tower they said he lived inthe JP told me he lived in a three-storey tower with a submarine periscope stuck through the roof. I take it you’ve heard all about that toweryes well, it takes all kinds, I suppose. “Many a hue to make Bristol stew” as my mother used to say. Present company included, I will confess. All I ever wanted to do was run a pigfarm in southern Ontarioand anybody I ever admitted that to thought I was loco too.

Anyway, when I finally found his place, everything was already torn down. Tower, barn, whatever else he might have had in there. All that was left was the foundations. But I could see a set of deep gouge-marks leading up onto the prairie in a northeasterly direction, which I followed, and that led me right to the ship. She was lying about half a mile away from the coulee, if my memory serves me right, maybe three-quarters of a mile, but no more than that.

Now the JP had told me a bit about this ship, but he obviously hadn’t seen her himself. Couldn’t have, from his description. After I got back to Abbey that night and filed my report, I wrote to my wife, she was living in Saskatoon at the time you see, said she found country life too boring, well I wrote and told her, I said: you’ve got to come out and have a look at this thingnow this’ll knock your socks off. A steamship as big as the Annabelle Leethat was an old freighter I worked on back in the merchant marinejust sitting there in the middle of a prairie grainfield, must have been a thousand miles to the nearest tidewater. Damndest thing I ever saw or ever expect to see again. She had grain sacks stuffed into her portholes and her deck looked like she’d been raked clean by a three-week galethere was no superstructure on her at that point, you see. There was smoke coming out of her stack, and with that wind whipping it straight back and her bow buried in a sand drift, I’m damned if she didn’t look like she was punching through heavy swells at fifteen knots. Oh I’d have called it downright eerie if headquarters allowed that kind of language, but they didn’t, so I just had to call it “irregular.” No, headquarters never liked our reports to get too colourful, you see.

So I banged on her hull for a while with a piece of pipehad to keep that up for about five minutes before he eventually stuck his head out through a hatch in the stem and asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to talk to him and he dropped a rope ladder over the side to let me upactually it was just a single rope with doubled knots in it, if memory serves me right. He seemed a bit nervous and not too sociable, but then, of course, he was a Finlander, you see; they’d had the secret police back home. You had to take that sort of thing into account. Well, he told me he’d been building this ship for quite a few years, ever since the beginning of the Thirties, and when he got her launched he was going to sail her to some ocean I couldn’t remember ever having heard of . . .

3

THE CONSIGNMENT

When the two flatcar-loads of iron, cable, steel, and oak planking arrived at Manybones in October 1931, the waybill had to be signed by a perplexed Pool Elevator operator because the station-agent was over at the Cherry Café, playing cards. From October to August, freights rarely stopped in this two-street, one-elevator town; once the year’s harvest had been shipped and the bins swept out, the only function of the single track which appeared from nowhere on the northeastern horizon, stitched rapidly across town, and disappeared as inscrutably into the southwest, was to carry the weekly train on its roundabout route between Verlo and Pennant. That train had delivered little but the mail since the fall of 1930, ever since the Stock Market crash and the first crop failures had drained away everyone’s unspent cash and reduced the houseware advertising posters at Gillis’s Hardware to wrapping paper.

The elevator operator shook his head. Two flatcar-loads of high-priced steel and planking all the way from southern Ontario. It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t anyone for a hundred miles in any direction doing well enough to need new building materials of that sort.

He stepped back into his office out of the wind and took a second look at the waybill. DAMIANUS SUKANEN. That didn’t make any sense either. Nobody called “Damianus” in this area. There was Aleksis Sukanen on a quarter-section half a dozen miles southeast of town, and his screwball brother, Tom, who lived in a coulee branching off Broken Valley a little farther to the west. Both Finnish homesteaders up from Minnesota; both hardheaded as rock. You showed ’em a chicken and they argued it was an egg. But Aleksis’s farm was barely big enough to feed his wife and four kids, and Tom, well that stone-pile he called a homestead couldn’t have fed a wife and kids even if he’d had himself a set. Which he didn’t. Lived alone in that coulee like a hermit.

He stared through the dirt-streaked office window at the dustclouds drifting in from the west again and then kicked shut the door to keep out the worst of it, though it never seemed to make much difference. Damned stuff got in everywhere, no matter how much you plugged all the windows and doors. Every morning he blew a thin layer of it off the desk and chair and even the stack of shipping receipts he kept stuffed in a tin box by the weighscales. It was enough to make you want to hang up your coveralls and head for the Coast. Which people were already starting to do, those who hadn’t been around for the good crops of 27 and 28. Around here, you had to be able to tap into memories like that to believe there was any point. And even so, the area should never have been settled in the first place. Too sandy. Much too dry. Oh, it all looked pretty good when the rain fell and the wind didn’t blow your summerfallow clean into Manitoba, but underneath that thin layer of sweetgrass and crocuses, of wolfwillow and wild roses, it was really nothing more than a great goddamn desert just waiting for the chance to resurface. Which, from the looks of things right now, was exactly what it was fixing to do. Oh sure, the farmers said that was exaggerating, that a little dust only gave the women something to live for, but farmers were farmers; you’d be crazy to expect them to see the world as it was. A farmer complained over a good crop like a horsedealer dumping on a Blackstone mare, but when the weather failed and the land gave out, he promoted it like an evangelist hawking salvation.

He scanned the office walls for a nail on which to stick the mysterious waybill until this Damianus Sukanen showed up to acknowledge his extravagant descent into debt. Steel pipes. Waterglass. Machine bolts. Compression fittings. Everything you didn’t need to build a house or barn or even a grain wagon with fancy pneumatic tires, to haul in your ten-bushel-an-acre crop. As an elevator operator, he knew what was coming in off those fields. And what the hell would anyone need to use brass for in the middle of the dryland prairie? You’d think there was a shortage of skid-plates down at the CPR yards in Pennant. Of course these cross-grained Finlanders were known to be like that. Had their own ideas about everything, and once they had them, it was game over. You showed them a chicken and they’d argue it was a goddamn egg.

4

THE INVENTION OF DAMIAN SUKANEN

No one knows what prompted the midwife who delivered Tomi Jaanus Alankola, eighth of ten children born to a tarpit owner and his wife in the tiny village of Koronkylä, Finland, to decree that little Tomi would be a “paragon of logic.” She came to that conclusion on September 23, 1881, after carrying the newborn for brief moments into every room in the house and observing his responses. “Once around the house tells all,” she assured the skeptical mother breezily. “This one will sorely tax your patience.”

She was not wrong, though the fact that Hilda Alankola was a veritable czarina whose patience was taxed by virtually everyone no doubt gave her prediction a better than average chance of coming true. Hilda prized neatness and order. Tomi saw little point to it, unless the disorder he created interfered with efficiency. For Tomi, it rarely did. He had a near-perfect photographic memory, and for him a fistful of marbles or his socks were as instantly retrievable from under a clutter of toys or clothing as from a neatly stored box. Hilda worshipped consistency and ritual, abhorred short-cuts and substitutions. To Tomi, wood was wood. At age three, when ordered to fill the stove box, he considered the snow-covered walkway to the woodshed, noticed a lot of unused wood more conveniently at hand, and filled the box with twelve priceless carved figurines from the wooden crèche under the Christmas tree, various wooden toys he no longer cared for, wooden spoons and ladles from his mother’s kitchen, and his brother Aleksis’s crib, which the baby was fortunately not sleeping in at the time. Little Aleksis wasn’t so lucky on a later occasion when the six-year-old Tomi dumped him unceremoniously into a snowdrift to better get at a seized wheel on the buggy into which the toddler had been bundled. Half an hour later the wheel had been freed, cleaned, and oiled, and little Aleksis was almost dead in the sub-zero cold. “Minä sanon sinulle, that boy’s all male!” Hilda fumed when her husband tried to defend him. “He’s not all there; he’s got tunnel-vision; he hops around on one foot. There’s just no hope for him.”

Accepted for his first game of hide-and-seek with his older brothers, Tomi followed their instructions to the letter. They searched for him for over half an hour, then finally continued the game without him. When he struggled out from under the chicken shed at suppertime, hair thick with vermin and reeking of skunk, he was resolute and unrepentant. “They never found me,” he protested through a bath of lye suds and tomato paste. “They never found me, and I won!”

For Hilda Alankola, the boys of the family were a lost cause. They were boorish, cantankerous, lazy, and above all slovenly. Once she had made up her mind about this she moved them all up into the unfinished attic, where they could roost like monkeys among the beams and rafters, out of her sight. At dinner they were directed to the far end of the table, while the girls sat primly and smugly at the other. Their watchful mother sat between them like a wall. (Their father, Aho, who had been plagued all his life with digestive problems, ate his eggs and milk porridge in the kitchen.) Bath-night for the boys was on Wednesdays, and for the girls (who attended Sunday School) it was Saturdays, during which time the boys were strictly confined to their attic. “I won’t have it,” Hilda could be heard declaring, as she patrolled the intervening hall. “I will not have it. Absolutely not.”

At the age of twelve, young Tomi packed a knapsack and ran off to sea. It seemed to him the only way to show his mother that he could measure up to her uncompromising standards of industry and enterprise. But when his freighter returned to the port of Vaasa, after more than a year’s tramping in the Mediterranean, the young stowaway merely received a spectacular thrashing and a long term as pit-man’s apprentice, tarring ships in the Alankola re-fit yard on the Lapuanjoki River. Tomi disliked the work, and his resentment was deepened by his younger brother, Aleksis, who often detoured past the pit on his way to school, to smirk at Tomi Jaanus and run.

In the years after his seafaring gamble, Tomi became increasingly secretive and capricious. He said little, but brooded much. He began to confuse everyone by being unpredictably co-operative and rebellious by turns. Once, after driving himself with single-minded ferocity for weeks to complete the caulking of a log barge on time, he deliberately sank the vessel by unscrewing her seacocks. A few months later he startled his pit-boss and surprised Hilda by inventing a rudimentary paintsprayer using a cast-off irrigation nozzle assembly, some steam valves, and an ordinary air pump, then smashing it to pieces after Hilda noted loudly that “it’s astonishing, really, the way simple laziness can cause some people to use their heads.” Confrontations between mother and son became heated, then violent. After a fire in the oakum shed was traced back to Tomi, Hilda gave him such a clout to both sides of the head that she burst both his eardrums, deafening him for two months. That fall the boy retaliated by learning to speak Russianthe language of Finland’s hated oppressorswhich he shouted at his mother during subsequent rows. Yet he never raised a hand against her, though he was rapidly growing into a stocky, bigfisted young man“chest like a bull and an assured future on the Volga,” as Hilda said often to her husband, arguing about him late at night. “And whatever abilities he has, he uses exclusively to torment me.”

When the Russians passed Decree F-26 in 1901Rosa Lee,