[review] Mauri Kunnas: Doghill’s Finnish History

Mauri Kunnas
Koiramäen Suomen historia
Doghill’s Finnish History
Otava 2017
ISBN 978-951-1-30879-9

Mauri Kunnas is a famous author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, most loved for his ’doglike adaptations’ of historical events, people and works of both literary and visual arts. Kunnas’ secret is to portray all characters as non-human animals, usually dogs, sometimes as wolves, cats and even crocodiles. His entertaining illustrations are rich in details and incidents that spirit up accounts of how people (or rather, dogs) used to wash the laundry, heat their huts or build ships. Mauri Kunnas has often been said to have taught more history to the Finnish youth than the Finnish public schooling system – and even though the latter has excelled in international assessments, this may not stray too far away from the truth.

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For the celebration of Finland’s one hundred years of independence, Mauri Kunnas created yet another history book, namely the history of Finland like the dogs of Doghill know it. This book covers the timespan from the reformation in the 16th century when Finland was still a province under the Swedish rule and ends after Finnish War 1808-1809 when Finland was lost to Russia. It took another 108 years for Finland to gain independence, but this period is the setting for Kunnas’s previous books.

The story begins in the 19th century when the children of the Doghill family, well-known from their numerous portrayals in other Doghill books, find an old coin. Their father starts to tell them old stories in which his relatives have play a role. As the story unravels, Mauri Kunnas sheds light on many famous names, wars and eras that most Finnish people have heard of but may have difficulties to explain in their own words.
Kings, queens and, in the end, tsars, make the outline for the stories. All monarchs are introduced on their separate pages with years indicating their time on the throne. The stories, however, tend to take the perspective of simple townsmen, children and peasants.

For example, Kunnas introduces Duke John of Finland (Juhana Herttua in Finnish, 1537-1592) through Duke’s fishmonger who is invited to join the feast at Turku Castle by the Duke himself. There the fishmonger and his wife are first acquainted with the fork which Catherine Jagellonica, wife to Duke John, originating from a Polish ruling family, has brought with her to Finland. The poor fishmonger cannot really handle the fork and as he tries to catch a turnip with it, he hits his own nose instead.

Further on, Doghill’s Finnish History retells the story of Cudgel War of 1596-1597, peasant uprising in the part of Sweden that is now Finland. The name of the uprising derives from the types weapons the peasants used to arm themselves with: cudgels, flails and maces, as they were thought to be the most efficient weapons against the heavily armoured enemies. Their opponents, the troops of Klaus Fleming, were professional, heavily armed and armoured men-at-arms. Cudgel War was, in fact, civil war, provoked by the King. Illustration shows many dogs and wolves lying on the ice with huge bumps on their heads and tongues sticking out of their mouths, as the text reveals that many peasants did not return home. Kunnas states the facts but the story maintains its bright tone. Leader of the peasants, Jaakko Ilkka, is told to be caught by the opponent, however, his execution is not mentioned.

During the reign of Christina, Queen of Sweden in the early 17th century, Finland enjoyed happy times under the governor-general, Count Per Brahe the Younger (Pietari Braahe in Finnish). Brahe made several improvements in the Finnish part of Sweden, and so the Finns even now speak of the good Count’s time. Brahe also initiated the founding of Royal Academy of Turku. Kunnas has attached his own version of Albert Edelfelt’s famous triptych ’The Inauguration of Royal Academy of Turku’ to this story. Only this time a local boy’s tomcat causes turmoil by chasing a mouse amid serene-looking men.

Doghill’s Finnish History also tells about the construction of Viaborg fortress (’Suomenlinna’ in Finnish), the now UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the time of construction, Turku was still the most important town in the Finnish part of Sweden and Helsinki a mere village. The number of men hired to build Viaborg exceeded the population of Helsinki. New and useful innovations such as buildings with a stone foundation and red ochre paint, very popular in Finnish wooden houses, stem from the construction site in Viaborg. Mörtin Matti comes back home with an outhouse, a pretty little hut with a heart shaped carving on its door. Matti’s family is delighted by the gift but only use it for special occasions.

The book ends with three Russian tsars and a story from Finnish War, which ended the era of Finland under Swedish rule. Kunnas ends his book with a picture of a modern dog with a skate board and trendy headphones, remarking that all that happens now will be history one day.

Kunnas’s stories are short and plain, mere fragments of the time they represent. One cannot really get to know any of his characters, they remain distant and one-dimensional. They are either brave, cunning, vain, funny or kind. This book makes excellent reading for children of all ages because the individual stories are short and thus easy to divide into pieces for the child’s liking. Nevertheless, the book suits even adults, for the historical information is accurate and placed in an interesting context.
Mauri Kunnas was nominated for Finlandia Junior for this magnificent book, and quite rightly so. Kunnas’ background research has been extensive. Also, his adaptations of famous historical paintings are candy for mind and eye. Hopefully there is even more to come!

Marianna Koljonen

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