Tuesday, May 31, 2016

'Season's Revenge' spawns a detective story

Originally published in the Ontonagon (Mich.) Herald, June 1, 2016

By Henry Kisor 

Who would have thought a tiny news clipping from an Ontonagon Herald of 1931, inserted into a mystery novel published in 2003, would result 84 years later in the reunion of two long separated Finnish families—one in Green, Michigan, and one in Finland—and the rediscovery of some of their lost history?

Karoliina and Simon Talikka
The story, nurtured over the years by the dogged detective work of Doug Karttunen, a native of Green and a historian of the town, begins in 2001 when I was researching Season’s Revenge. I found a brief item in an old Herald about a group of Finnish immigrants enticed to return to Soviet Karelia during the Great Depression.

I put the clipping into Season’s Revenge. On page 111 appears this paragraph from the fictional Porcupine County Tribune:


“Mr. and Mrs. Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer, and Henrikki Heikkila, who have lived at Greenfield for several years, left Thursday for Kontupohja, United Soviet Social Russia.

“A farewell party was given for them at the Farmers’ Hall at Greenfield Monday evening.”

Except for one, the names of the emigrants are real. All I altered was the name of the paper and the name of the town, Green. “Henrikki Heikkila” is a fictional character I added to support a motive for murder involving a subplot of the novel.

That subplot involved the historical reverse migration of more than 10,000 struggling Finnish farmers from Upper Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario to Karelia, a Finnish-speaking Soviet province next door to Finland. Most were never heard from again, presumably having perished during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. Many of their American properties were abandoned for taxes, sold to greedy land speculators or fought over by embittered relatives—giving rise to a possible motive for murder.

One day in 2009 I sat down at the computer to the following email (slightly abridged). It was from Kevin Levonius in Gilroy, California.

Arthur Wesa
 “I was shocked,” Levonius wrote, “when reading your book Season’s Revenge when I came across the section that talked about Karelia and Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer . . .

“Your fictional story was non-fiction to me. I have been searching for decades trying to find out what happened to my missing relatives that went to Karelia from Green, Michigan. They are Simon Talikka, Arthur Wesa [the 1931 Herald had spelled it Weser] and sons Arthur Jr., Elmer, and Eero. I find your story more than coincidence. Simon Talikka and his wife took in (unofficially adopted) Arthur’s boys shortly after Olga (Arthur’s wife) died. Arthur also lost a very young son named Onni.

Olga Wesa
“I pray that you might have some information on my missing relatives. After Simon Talikka and Arthur Wesa and the boys went to Karelia, we lost contact with them in 1936.

 “Mayme Sevander’s book Of Soviet Bondage has a listing of wartime labor camp victims, one of which is ‘Vesa, Arthur; from Green, Mich. US 1931’.

“The last time anyone heard from Arthur and the boys was in a letter written by Simon Talikka in 1936.

Simon wrote that he was no longer living in Karelia, but rather in the Ural Mountains “digging gold, working in a gold mine. Wesa [Arthur] stayed with his boys in Karelia. They are working there in the woods. Young Paavo [Walter Wesa] was a teacher in Tunkua.” [Tunkua is a town in the northern part of Karelia].

Simon also wrote that his first wife was still alive, and that “I left her in Karelia, and took another, younger one. This one gets along well with the Russian language, had been a teacher for 9 years there in Karelia, and is 35 years old.  A gorgeous person.’ ”

Levonius concluded: “This was the last piece of solid evidence that Arthur and the three boys were still alive. I would appreciate any help you can provide.”

He also posted a photograph of the Wesa boys, along with pictures of Arthur and his wife, Olga.

The Wesa boys: Left to right, Onni, Eero (variously Anglicized as Elmer or Erik), Lauri (Lawrence), Paavo (Walter or Paul) and Viljo (Arthur Jr. or William) in a photograph of the Wesa children.  Onni died young, Eero, Paavo and Viljo went to Karelia with their father, and Lauri stayed behind in the United States.
I had to tell Levonius that I had no further information on his family, but that I would post his letter on my blog (www.henrykisor.blogspot.com) in the long-shot hope that someone researching the Karelia period might know what happened to the Talikkas and the Wesas and would discover the blog during a Google search.

To Levonius’ post Doug Karttunen commented the same day:

“I dare say most of the original Finnish ‘Greenfield’ families will have a relative or two in their genealogical closets that were caught up in the ‘Karelia Fever.’ Sadly, almost none of the adult men of those that went there survived Stalin’s purges during the late 1930s or the Winter and Continuation Wars with Finland that followed. Except for a small number who managed to escape from the Soviet Union, almost all were shot or imprisoned. Most of the wives and children were, however, spared the fate of their menfolk. Many of these (or their descendants now) still live in Russia, having survived a very difficult life.”

Leena Kurra
Doug was writing not only as a historian but also as a citizen with skin in the game. A great-uncle of his who had also emigrated to Karelia, he said, was sentenced to prison in 1938 for unspecified crimes against the state. In typical Russian bureaucratese, he was “rehabilitated” in 1996 after Mikhail Gorbachev allowed records of the Gulag to be made public. The great-uncle’s demise is unknown, but Doug suspects he was shot or starved in prison.

On August 19, 2012, three years after that blogpost, Toivo Talikka, now of Nottingham, England, happened upon the blog and added this comment:

“If his age in 1936 was around 50, Simon Talikka could be Simo Matinpoika Talikka, born 19 Sept. 1885 in the Tervajärvi village of Jaakkima municipality in Karelia. My own family was evacuated from the same region in 1944.”

Toivo Talikka provided the link to an item in a website that lists, in Russian, names of victims of the Soviet terror in the 1930s. One of them “is likely to be Simo Talikka, based on the year of his birth and his father’s first name.”

Translated, the link reads:

“Semyon Matveevich Talikka, born in 1885, locomotive engineer Ormedzoloto [a mining organization], lived in Kuvandysky municipality, Ratiyanka province.
 “Sentenced to three years by the NKVD to Orenburg region, October 14, 1938.
 “Verdict: Rehabilitated in October, 1989.
“Source: The Book of Memory of the Orenburg region.”

“These times,” Toivo Talikka continued, “were extremely tragic for immigrants and people with ethnic backgrounds in Russia. According to the archives, around 8,000 people of Finnish origin were executed, and out of 143,000 Poles, 111,000 were shot.”

The same day in 2012, Doug read Talikka’s comment and responded:

Lillian Bolo McCaffrey
“Yes, these are one and the same Simo Matinpoika Talikka [‘Simo Matinpoika,’ or ‘Simo, Matthew’s son,’ and ‘Semyon Matveevich’ are the Finnish and Russian for the same name.] Their birth dates and places match. Simo left Green to go to Karelia in October, 1931, along with his wife Karoliina. They had no children of their own, but were accompanied by three neighbor children whom they had helped raise after their mother died.”

What’s more, Doug said, he owns the actual 1936 letter from from Simon Talikka that Levonius quoted—and its return address is from Orenburg.

Those children’s Finnish names, Doug added, were Viljo (Arthur Jr.), Paavo (Walter) and Eero (Elmer) Wesa. The original Herald article of 1931 had omitted Walter’s name.

“Simon had an older brother, John Talikka, who also lived in Green,” Doug continued. “John and his wife Mary had several children, and descendants of theirs still live in the area. I am assuming, Toivo, that you may be related to these Talikka brothers. If you are interested, I probably can put you in contact with some of the family members still living in the U.S.A.”

On May 15, 2016, almost four years later, Doug posted this comment on the blog: “A couple of weeks ago I received an email out of the blue from a lady in Finland who apparently had come across the blog while searching for long-lost relatives, spotted my comment about the Talikka brothers, and decided to get in touch with me.”

She is Leena Kurra, who lives in Hankasalmi in central Finland. Born in 1940, she is the granddaughter of Eva Talikka (1870-1950), who was Simo and John Talikka’s sister. Eva did not emigrate to America but remained in Finland. She was mother to Leena’s father Onni Kilpiö.

In her email, Leena told Doug how the family in Finland kept up with their many Talikka relations in the U.S. until 1951, when Onni Kilpiö received a letter from Oscar Strang in Ontonagon revealing the death of Strang’s stepdaughter Vieno Talikka in 1950. (Strang had married Mary Talikka after John died in 1928, and they continued to live on the Talikka farm in Green until her death in 1953.)

Then the Americans and the Finns lost touch with each other.

Chart by Doug Karttunen. Click on it to view larger.
Sixty-five years, a phone call and a few emails later, the two families were at last reunited: with Doug’s help Leena Kurra established contact with Lillian Bolo McCaffrey, who was born in Green and now lives in Alabama.

Lillian is the daughter of George Bolo, who, Doug writes, “lived at the far south end of the Halfway River Road up until the early 1960s. George married Vieno Talikka, the daughter of John Talikka (and thus niece of Simon Talikka).”

A few of George and Vieno’s descendants still live in or about Ontonagon, and several more out of the area, Doug said.

Is Toivo Talikka of Nottingham related to Leena Kurra? Not directly, she thinks, but Toivo wrote that his father was born in the same municipality, Jaakkima, in Karelia, suggesting that there may be a distant connection. Doug is presently searching for it.

So there we have it, thanks to the power of the Internet and the longing of far-flung members of two families to find their missing relatives.

If anyone who reads this article has new information about the Talikkas or Wesas, please send an email to either h.kisor@comcast.net or dkarttunen@chartermi.net.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Political Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Up here in impoverished rural Ontonagon County, Michigan (Porcupine County in my novels), there seem to be almost no roadside political signs in front of homes along the streets and highways. Yesterday, in the eleven miles between Ontonagon village and Silver City to the west, I counted just three properties with Trump signs and one with a Bernie banner. The biggest sign was for the incumbent sheriff, running for re-election.

In the past, Ontonagon Countians have been as involved and as passionate in their politics, whether Republican or Democratic, as citizens of anyplace else in the rest of the United States. You used to know the allegiance of just about every one of your neighbors just by what they put out on the lawn, never mind fervent barroom and cafe wrangles. The local weekly used to be full of letters ripping a strip off the Other Side. People used to be engaged.

True, the conventions have yet to happen, but it seems that folks up here in the boonies—and, I bet, most of the rest of the country—are heartily sick of the politics of 2016. Both Trump and Hillary seem highly unpopular. (Bernie not so much, but I wouldn’t call him a shoo-in either.)

My conversations with the locals have led me to the admittedly unscientific conclusion that the election cycle has become so long, so intense, so hateful, so full of at best dubious and at worst outrageous statements that people throughout the political spectrum are suffering from extreme campaign fatigue.

Makes me wonder if voters here and maybe everywhere will either sit out the presidential election or trickle to the polls holding their noses, voting against the candidate they either like least or dislike most. There seem to be no positives to vote for.

Things could change between now and November. But I don’t think so. I think we will just see more and more of the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Some time ago I happened across the amusing cartoon above. It bears more than a grain of truth. Authors are a dime a dozen but everybody loves dogs.

That notion has been percolating in my mind for a while.

When my little service dog Trooper came into my life, that notion resurfaced—and gave me an idea for book promotion. The resulting poster is below.

We'll see if it works. I'm betting that it'll double the modest sizes of my audiences.

Grace note

I was reading Buckular Dystrophy, the newest novel by Joe Heywood, my fellow Yooper mystery novelist, when I came across a passage in which his hero, conservation officer Grady Service, enters the real-life Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan, and . . .

“Service noticed they were in front of a line of books by Henry Kisor. The author’s main character was a U.P. lawman named Martinez, an Indian raised by whites and forever seeing the world from different and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Service admired the character, envied his ability to see sides so clearly.”

Well, thank you, Joe!

By the way, Joe is a character in my new novel Tracking the Beast, but I disguised him as a veteran true-crime author named Jack Haygood. His fans will recognize that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Talikka/Weser story continues

The epic of the Talikkas and Wesers seems to have remarkable legs.

While researching my first mystery novel, Season's Revenge, published in 2003, I found a snippet in the Ontonagon (Mich.) Herald about a group of Finnish immigrants, including Mr. and Mrs. Simon Talikka and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Weser, who had been enticed by the Comintern to return to the Soviet-held province of Karelia in Finland during the Depression.

I put the entire clipping into the novel without changing the names. It provided a possible motive for murder.

In 2009 a relative of the Talikkas and Wesers (actually Wesa) living in California wrote to me after reading the novel. The Wesas, the relative said, had disappeared into the Gulag during Stalin's purges, and asked if I had any further information. Sadly, I had none. But I put the letter into a 2009 blogpost as a comment, hoping that someone also looking for the family would come across it using Google Search.

In 2012 still another relative of the Talikkas found the blogpost and the comments, and wrote that he had discovered evidence that Simon Talikka indeed had been sentenced to a NKVD labor camp in Orenburg, and may not have survived.

Over those years Doug Karttunen, a local historian and friend of mine, commented at length on the blogpost, filling in the gaps with considerable historical knowledge about the events and the times.

And just yesterday Doug posted still another comment: the old blogpost had led relatives of the Talikkas in Finland seeking their lost U.S. kin to contact him—and he helped reunite the American and Finnish branches of the family.

Doug's new revelation is at the bottom of the old blogpost. Read the whole story here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Under the table

So far Trooper seems to be completely accepted everywhere in the little Upper Michigan village of Ontonagon except possibly one place—and only in a minor sense. But not a trivial one, not to me at least.

With me he's gone to Pat's Supermarket, where all the checkers and stockers whirl, smile and coo as we pass by, and to Syl's Cafe, where the waitress did the same and allowed us to pick a table where Trooper could lie by my side out of the way.

Last night at Konteka in White Pine, the manager smiled at him as we arrived. Evidently she didn't spot his bright orange service-animal vest, because she said, "He can't come in here."

When Debby said he was a service dog, she quickly replied, "Oh, okay," and let us choose a suitable table. He lay quietly beside me. No muss, no fuss. Everybody was happy.

At my side at a table against the wall, well
out of the way of servers and other patrons.
At lunch in Lynn's North Country Cafe in downtown Ontonagon today, the waitress immediately recognized Trooper as a service dog and admitted him, but when I spread his little mat close by my side at a table along one wall, quite out of the way, she said he had to lie under the table.

"The owner says so," she said.

Such a request is not illegal.

On the other hand, putting Trooper under a small cafe table with a heavy center column means I can't see him and make sure he's lying where he should, keeping him under control at all times. That's why his little mat is always spread at my side so that he's visible out of the corner of my eye. Otherwise I worry.

The issue of where to place a service dog in a restaurant is a gray area so far as federal law is concerned. Dogs are to be either under the table or beside the handler. Who decides which? There's the rub.

Federal guidelines say Trooper is essentially a four-legged item of medical equipment. I doubt that any restaurateur would require someone with a rolling oxygen tank to hide it under the table. The idea is to keep the device out of the way where no one will bump into or step on it. That was my intent in having Trooper lie close by my side.

I didn't put up a fuss after telling the waitress that her command made me fret. Why get her into trouble with her boss? When she later brought the check, she apologized for the incident. She was not only pleasant but also empathetic.

Now I must decide whether to stay out of Lynn's and take Trooper elsewhere, or try to speak with Lynn herself and see if I can't persuade her to relax her policy. Sticking service dogs out of sight under small tables even if their handlers are inconvenienced might be quite legal, but isn't always the right thing to do.

Why not just say goodbye to Lynn's? Her food is excellent, that's why not.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

City Dog in the woods

Debby and Trooper on the Union Mine Trail
in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
“Never let Trooper off leash in the open,” his trainer warned when she brought him to us last December. “He’s too valuable a dog to risk losing.”

This is not a problem for a highly trained service dog who lives in a suburban Chicago condo. Municipal law says he must be leashed when out and about. Good thing, because when Trooper sees another dog, he wants to rush over and play. When he sees a squirrel, he wants it.

In the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, things are a bit different. We live in a little log cabin on the beach of Lake Superior. There are no other pooches (that we know of) in our woodsy immediate neighborhood, but the owls, eagles, coyotes and maybe wolves that live in the vicinity will all take a small dog.

And so this spring we had a dog pen erected in our cabin’s back yard. It’s made of green plastic-clad steel deer mesh about 700 square feet in area, with tall grass and trees at one end for privacy during his morning toilette. We leash Trooper for the short (five yard) walk from cabin door to pen gate. He does come when called, but we just can’t risk his bolting after a squirrel or chipmunk—or, worse, the resident skunk—and disappearing into the woods. He’s a terrier, and terriers have vexedly high prey drives.

In the pen he’s constantly on alert, his head high as he inhales mysterious new smells and listening to alien sounds, especially in the evening when the peepers in the swamp launch their symphony. If he spots a chipmunk in the area, he takes off for it at flank speed. (He hasn’t caught one yet, but it’s a matter of time.)

Yesterday we took a walk in the woods—the Union Mine trail in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park—and he seemed to love the experience, although he wanted to pull hither and yon off the trail, following strange scents. No heeling for him. We’ll need to work on this, but he should get used to it soon.

He has been in the lake once—he jumped into shallow water, then jumped right back out. That water’s cold, about 40 degrees.

By the end of the summer City Dog will have become Country Dog.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A jacket for 'Billy Gibbs'

Now that I am faced with self-publishing the next Steve Martinez mystery, The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, I have been thinking about a cover for the print-on-demand paperback as well as the e-book.

To illustrate the theme of race and murder on the shore of Lake Superior, I needed a good hanging tree. Hanging trees with simple, even plain, backgrounds are hard to come by. Most are to be found in the deep woods.

But there's one just a few miles west of our cabin on Lake Superior, a maple right on the beach that possesses a sturdy hanging limb. At this time of year in the Upper Peninsula, the trees haven't yet leafed out, so there could be a nice branchy silhouette in that maple.

So I drove out last night with the Pentax and captured several angles of that tree. Under it a young couple sat spooning, and there was also a barbecue kettle in the middle of the shot.

It wasn't difficult to get rid of the people and the grill with a little work with the Photoshop Elements clone tool. Then I applied the text, using the Stencil font to suggest the military subtheme in the novel.

Finally I attached an illustration of a hangman's noose found on the Internet and altered heavily beyond copyright worries. Reducing the noose to a proper size took a little research into the depths of Elements.

I'd thought whatever I came up with would be quick-and-dirty, something to tweak over the next few months before Billy Gibbs is published as an Amazon CreateSpace softcover in January.

But maybe it's good enough to stand as is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Adventures in the U.P.

We have now been at Far Shore, our little log cabin on the beach of Lake Superior in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for 24 hours. We have learned two things.

First, we had wondered how the restaurants and sole supermarket in the town called Porcupine City in my mystery novels would receive Trooper, my little hearing service dog. Would he get the stink eye from people who didn’t think he should be allowed in places where food is handled? Would I have to spend a lot of time educating dyed-in-the-wool conservative Yoopers about service dogs and the Americans with Disabilities Act?

When she laid eyes on Trooper, a waitress at Syl’s, the country cafe called Merle’s in the novels, said it for everybody: “Oh, what a precious darling!”

Her smile lit up the room.

At Pat’s IGA Supermarket, the checkers and stock people turned and grinned just as widely. So did the hangers-on at Connie’s, my coffee shop of choice.

Even the town Nazi, a white supremacist who contributes anti-Semitic screeds to the Internet, beamed when he arrived at Connie’s just as we were leaving.

I needn’t have worried. The people of this small town in the middle of nowhere seem to know all about service dogs. They even asked if they could pet him, or if he was working and they shouldn’t.

“Pet him,” I said.

The second thing: Never assume the cabin has been completely scoured of rat poison. This morning Debby lifted up a pillow on the sofa and found a handful of D-Con underneath. Trooper had been lounging there.

Our caretakers had placed the poison after our departure ast fall, months before we learned Trooper was coming to live with us. They had simply forgotten about it during the spring cleanup.

We doubted Trooper had gotten into the poison, but we couldn’t be sure.

We called the vet, knowing what he would say, because we’d gone through the same thing just two months ago: “Take no chances. Put him on a regimen of Vitamin K-1 for thirty days and get a blood test afterward.”

And so we did. Lesson learned. Again.