Fields of Fortune (extract)
Usko was one of the first Finns to claim a plot at Lightning Ridge. Soon, others came, and it was mostly his own fault, because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He liked to play the explorer, wearing his stockman’s hat.
‘No trees as far as the eye can see,’ he remembered telling his countrymen, on a brief jaunt back to the homeland. He had been talking about Mt Isa. He remembered he’d said something about walking off into the field and making your own claim. ‘You just start digging,’ he’d said. And they’d all gone starry eyed, those jobless, drifting fellows from Keski Pohjanmaa. Well, it was a half-truth. He didn’t tell them it was already someone’s land. It didn’t seem to bother the other miners so why should it bother him? But after the war Mt Isa boomed and big business moved in and there was no room for the little guy, so he went looking further afield. Came upon the Ridge. Built a humpy out of scraps of tin, and sunk his shovel into the dirt. He spun the same sorts of yarns about the place. The great big hole outside his humpy was his life’s work. A small scale open cut. Well, who would have thought? And dug by hand, too? He marvelled at the rocks he had hidden away throughout the humpy.
No women in the town back then. So he’d returned to Finland and found himself a wife. She was the daughter of a Finnish lumberjack and an Estonian cleaner. The lumberjack had misjudged the lean of a pine, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. So he’d negotiated a good price for the young woman. Didn’t tell her much about her new home. Only that the sun shone, bright and white-hot, all year round. After her initial shock, Paivi began to integrate herself into the community. Soon she learned the story of the town - how it got its name on account of the farmer and his two hundred sheep who were struck by lightning up on the ridge. She thought that was a good sign. In Finland, he learned later, Paivi and her mother had been taken in by the evangelicals. The talking in tongues type. Despite his own communist leanings, they had two good years - him and Paivi - until she took up with a travelling preacher. Left the kid with him. Her name was Alma. She was one year old.
There had always been in him seams of goodness, but they had never been dug, not until Alma arrived, and it was just the two of them. Because it was all up to him then. He had to keep her alive, and in doing so he got to know her.