Some months the book is just special. This was one of them. I’ve never read a novel like Arto Paasilinna’s The Howling Miller – and for that alone, simply as a stand-alone, utterly unusual reading experience, the novel won my heart. The superb character of the miller, depicted almost entirely through action and words, the dry humor, the unexpected turns, and most of all, the gloriously unexpected ending.
But would it win over my reading group? I got there early, set up the tables and chairs, piled the free advances in the middle, read a little, downed an eggnog latte, twiddled my thumbs, looked at my watch. One by one they showed up – except for Lillian, who always comes and disappointingly didn’t last night. The members arrived, and gathered around the tables, and pored through the advances, and then got caught up in Obama fever and it was fifteen minutes before I could rein in the political excitement and get to the novel at hand.
To my surprise and delight, every member except for one found The Howling Miller as endearing and utterly charming as I did. The novel is a comic tribute to the independent spirit – and the suspense comes from watching the escalating alarm toward the miller (a good, hard-working, handsome man who occasionally feels the urge to howl) as first the villagers, then the police, then the military converge upon this incorrigible rule-breaker. Every group member confessed to enjoying the second half of the book less due to the overwhelming anxiety we felt for the sake of the miller, as his defiance of authority led to greater and greater retaliations, and how once we’d finished this thoroughly satisfying novel, we could review and laugh more at episodes originally far too suspenseful for laughter.
As we were all confessing to the anxiety that drove our reading of the final portion of the book, a woman approached our table and asked if we were the reading group. She had heard from her Finnish literature professor that we were discussing a Finnish novel. She was Finnish. She had lived in Finland.
She had not read the novel.
I have a secret passion for Finland. Back in 1999 I adapted the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, into a musical called The Sampo, which premiered at FinnFest ’99 on the University of Washington campus, when 3,000 Finns from around the world converged to celebrate their heritage. Working with FinnFest and the Seattle Finnish community was a highlight of the whole process, and all three performances of the musical sold out with standing ovations.
So I was delighted to know that Caarolina, the Finnish literature professor, had nudged a student our way. But this student had a lot to say. And it wasn’t all about Finland. Some of it was about her family, and her parents’ marital status. And not a lot of it had to do with the novel. She began to feel more and more like what health care professionals who lead support groups call the “dump-and-run” syndrome, people who need to tell strangers about their lives and never come back.
Suddenly we found the conversation being highjacked to Finland instead of The Howling Miller, as she began telling us about a conservative religious sect that may have figured in the church-burning scene in the novel, but which I felt confident did not.
As host and facilitator, this is my least favorite predicament. How to encourage all to participate, but not cheat the people who actually read the novel, and not let the conversation stray from our topic. How to rein in the conversation hog. I wish I could tell you the subtle, respectful ways in which I steered the conversation away from the Finnish student and back to my group. I can’t.
But what happened was perfectly interesting. The other group members were so invested in discussing the novel that the next time the Finnish student interjected, “I have a footnote! I have a footnote!” I noticed to my surprise that the conversation simply continued, as though none of them had heard her. The group simply took charge. They had read the novel. They loved the novel. And they had decided not to let the conversation go.
After about forty-five minutes, the girl’s boyfriend came to pick her up. The conversation simply rolled on after she left, without a harsh word or derogatory comment. I was proud of my reading group. They knew what they wanted to do, and they simply continued to do it.