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Minnesota history brought to life-for young readers

He doesn't live in East Otter Tail County; he has no direct connections to the New York Mills and Perham areas; and he hasn't even a drop of Finnish blood in his ancestry.

But nationally published author, William Durbin, has become, in some respects, Minnesota's best known "historian" because his novels that are written for young people, but cover subjects that are captivating for all ages.

Minnesotans of Finnish descent, like those in NY Mills and throughout the Iron Range, share a special bond with Durbin. Almost single-handedly, he is reinforcing, and in some cases, introducing heritage and history to another generation of Finnish-Americans.

Four dozen NY Mills 5th-6th graders listened intently Feb. 19, when Durbin made his second appearance om the town in less than nine months. During the NY Mills 125th anniversary last July, Durbin made an appearance at the local library-greeting and talking history with locals and reuniting Finnish descendents.

Supplemented by a slide presentation that helped illustrate the subjects of his books, Durbin outlined his historically-accurate fiction books. Most of his 11 books for young readers have Minnesota themes-from fur-trapping, to early logging, to iron ore mining to homestead farming.

And half of those books have strong historic reference to Finnish immigrants.

Dark and horrible chapters of Finnish history-most of which many adults aren't even aware--are covered in two of his most recent books.

"The Darkest Evening" is based on a little known, yet utterly fascinating, facet of United States History.

"Jake's life is turned upside down when his father gets caught up in the Socialist fervor washing over their Finnish mining community in Minnesota," states the book's summary. "His father decides to move their family to a new, Finnish state inside the Soviet Union, a change that fills Jake with dread. His father dreams of creating a worker's paradise, but Jake and his family find disappointment and hardship. The story culminates with a thrilling, mid-winter attempt to escape-on skis-from Russia to Finland."

As unimagineable as it seems now, in the depths of the Great Depression, about 6,000 Finnish-Americans - including dozens from the New York Mills area and hundreds from other Minnesota towns-were lured to the Soviet Union by promises of a Socialist paradise.

An estimated 1,000 Finnish-Americans, who became vocally disenchanted with life in the USSR, were executed by the Josef Stalin regime, explained Durbin to the New York Mills students.

A second book dealing with a tragic chapter of Finnish history is "The Winter War," which is an account, from a youth perspective, of Stalin's invasion of Finland during World War II. The heroism of the Finns during the Second World War is accurately reflected in his book.

"When the Soviet Union invades its tiny neighbor Finland in November 1939, Marko volunteers to help the war effort," states the summary of the book. "Even though his leg was weakened by polio, he can ski well, and he becomes a messenger on the front line, skiing in white camouflage through the forests at night. The dark forest is terrifying, and so are the odds against the Finns: the Russians have four times as many soldiers and 30 times as many planes. They have 3,000 tanks, while the Finns have 30."

In addition to exposing the New York Mills students to Minnesota history, Durbin offered insights on his career as a published author.

One student, Kacie Pikula, was especiall inspired by Durbin's talk.

"I didn't know anything about Finland's war with the Russians," said Pikula. "He really makes me want to go out and write a book of my own."

Author regrets his Tiger Woods book

Long before golfer Tiger Woods stormed on to the international stage-and long before he became one of the tabloid's most notorious scoundrals-author William Durbin wrote an early biography about Tiger Woods.

An avid golfer, Durbin seized on his book idea when Woods was still in college.

At the time, Durbin genuinely believed that Woods was a man who would change golf forever and would be an outstanding role model for young people.

It was probably the first book-length bio of Woods.

Today, following the Woods scandal and his tarnished image, Durbin told New York Mills students last week that he regretted ever writing the book.