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Steam of Life

Premiere Date: August 2, 2011

'The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition'

The caption to this engraving, "The Black Finns," from On New Shores by Konrad Bercovici (1925), addresses the perception that the Finns were uniquely alien among North American immigrants; their peculiar language, penchant for radical politics, and practice of communal bathing set them apart.



On New Shores includes a chapter called "The Finns of Embarrass, Minnesota," and the writer strives from the outset to expose scandal while visiting the fiercely Finnish community in northeastern Minnesota, fueled by the prejudices of his local guide.

In Embarrass — and in the Finnish communities through which Bercovici traveled by auto from Duluth — the starkest symbol of this resistance was clear to him in the arrangement of the farmstead: "[A]lways there was one little building too many. Generally, it was a square, squat log house, which seemed to be half in the ground, with a wide door and a blind window." The writer fails to find any sin beyond a certain standoffishness in the Finns he talks to, but he freely quotes the guide, a man named Hall, for a more sinister view of these people of the marsh edges: "[T]he Christian Finns are all right... like the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes we have in this State.... But the black Finns of Embarrass are not Christians at all. They believe in witchcraft. Every family has its own witch-house close by its living-quarters. And as often as a good Christian says his prayers, these black Finns visit their little witch-houses. It is a funny sight to see the whole family, each one wrapped in a large white sheet, going to this little house to pray to some deity. Now these black Finns, too, are good workers, but we know enough about them to keep away from them."

Bercovici confirms that this was not a singular impression, stating that other locals were convinced that the sauna was a place for strange and exotic worship. Wandering north from St. Paul, he had first visited the Danish community of Askov, Minnesota, and praised the disciplined order of the community's Scandinavian immigrants, who were eager to assimilate, perfecting their English faster than any other nationality. But he paints a stark contrast in Finnish Embarrass, where no two Finns and no two houses are alike.

Bercovici predicted that it would take at least two generations for Finns to shake the sauna habit.

Text excerpts and photographs taken from The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition by Michael Nordskog, photography by Aaron W. Hautala. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Michael Nordskog. Photographs copyright 2010 by Aaron W. Hautala.



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