William Durbin

William Durbin is a former teacher who lives at the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness, where he has paddled through a great many of the wilderness lakes. Authenticity is crucial to William’s work. His novels frequently feature the land that he calls home and make use of primary sources such as letters, oral histories, interviews, and old business documents to paint an accurate historical picture. His books tell the stories of homesteaders, fur traders, lumberjacks and other keepers of the great north. A winner of the Great Lakes Book Award and a two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, William has published eleven novels for young readers, including The Broken Blade, Wintering, and The Darkest Evening. His novel El Lector was recently optioned for film by Jane Startz Productions.

William frequently speaks at schools, libraries, and conferences throughout the country. When he visits a community, his main goal is to get students excited about reading and to inspire them to pursue writing projects of their own. He has given over 500 presentations, regularly generating high praise. He lives with his wife, Barbara, and his two adult children still make their home in Minnesota.

Selected Reviews of William Durbin’s Books

Song of Sampo Lake
William Durbin
   Fifteen-year-old Matti comes to Minnesota with his Finnish family in 1900, homesick for the beauty of the old country but eager to help create a better, more independent life in the new one. At first the men work in a dangerous mine, to raise money for a homestead. Then they struggle to clear land in the woods and to build a cabin and a barn (and, of course, a sauna). Matti, stuck in the middle between his athletic older brother and his cute younger sisters, struggles in addition to find a way to stand out in his family. He takes a job clerking in the local general store one day a week, accompanied by his pet crow, which he had rescued after a storm. He also tutors the neighboring boys, and works hard at all of the many tasks on the homestead, from clearing the fields to hauling milk to hunting. Matti uses his brain as well as his muscles, saving his sister from drowning and surviving a blizzard, among other adventures. Assisted by a one-legged neighbor, a colorful character who sometimes has visions of the future, Matti learns much. In the end he earns his father’s respect, demonstrating “sisu,” a Finnish word meaning “strength, courage, and stubbornness.” Durbin, the author of the historical sagas The Broken Blade and Wintering, lives in Minnesota himself and clearly knows the landscape well. As in Little House on the Prairie, the many details here of what it takes to survive in a harsh land and climate make homesteading and history come alive. History and adventure fans will enjoy this. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: J–Recommended for junior high school students. 2002, Random House, Dell Yearling, 217p., $5.50. Ages 12 to 15.

The Winter War
William Durbin
   It is 1940 and Stalin has ordered the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Red Army. Outnumbered, under equipped, and under prepared for this massive invasion, the Finns bravely man their defensive lines. In the midst of this Winter War one youngster, who has suffered from the effects of a debilitating illness, tries to be of assistance to both his family and his nation. Marko is a victim of polio and that terrible disease has left its mark upon him in the shape of a metal leg brace. Yet, despite this disabling condition, Marko can still cross country ski with the best of them. As a result of this talent, Marko becomes a messenger taking vital information from one company to another. There in the war zone Marko learns about things like comradeship, sacrifice, and the horrors of war. All through his experience at the front Marko is also puzzled by the actions of one of his fellow soldiers named Karl. Karl is Marko’s age but seems so bitter and closed off from the other soldiers. In the end, Marko discovers the reasons for Karl’s behavior as well as great deal about himself and the savagery of even just wars. Winter War is the latest offering of William Durbin, a noted writer of historical fiction for young adults. In this period piece Durbin does well in capturing the nature of the often unknown Winter War between Finland and the USSR. Beyond the vivid depictions of combat in an Arctic-like landscape, Durbin also presents characters that seem believable. Although Marko and Karl are the only real figures who emerge from the background of this story, their evolution at the front and eventual sharing of a significant secret are enough to keep the plotline running. This is a fine book and it will interest readers who enjoy wartime fiction or coming of age stories. 2008, Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Greg Romaneck (Children’s Literature).

The Darkest Evening
William Durbin
   It is 1934. Unemployment is spreading, and America no longer seems like the land of prosperity it once did to the Makis. Recruiters are making frequent visits to their Finnish immigrant community, espousing the virtues of Karelia, a Communist Finnish state being established in the Soviet Union. Mr. Maki has long been interested in moving to Karelia; when Mrs. Maki hears about the musical and educational opportunities that would be available to their children there, she agrees to take their American-born children and resettle in the Communist state. Baseball-loving Jake hates the idea, but he cannot change his father’s mind. Almost before he knows it, the passports are secured, the furniture is sold, and the family is on their way. After a long voyage across the sea, they arrive in Karelia. It is a land very different from what they were promised. Is this the Communist dream Jake’s father has long favored? Why are goods really not distributed equally? Who are the NKVD, and what happens to the people they take from their homes in the middle of the night? Most important, how will the Makis survive? William Durbin’s novel brings together a chilling period in history with one boy’s determination to help his family overcome danger. Through the course of this story, the easy-going boy whose biggest worries were pick-up baseball games and All-Star statistics matures into a strong-willed person who is the key to his family’s escape from oppression. 2004, Orchard/Scholastic, $15.95. Ages 12 to 16. Reviewer: Heidi Hauser Green (Children’s Literature).

Program Details

Assembly Topics:

“Novels in Your Neighborhood”: How to use people, places, and events from your own hometown as the foundation for short stories and novels.

“The Truth in Historical Fiction”: William discusses how he got his start as a writer, and shares archival photographs from the topics that he has researched, including the fur trade, homesteading, logging, immigration, labor history, life in Stalinist Russia, overcoming a disability, and the politics of war. The presentation helps students see how original sources material can be used to write fiction that brings history to life.

“Historical Fiction as Diversity Education” or “Prejudice and Tolerance Through Time”: How William’s novels have depicted conflicts between a variety of cultures during periods of dramatic historical change.

“No Teacher Left Behind”: One of the many education-oriented topics that William has shared with teacher and reading associations across the country.

Workshop Topics:

“Beginning With a Bang”: How to write a beginning that will grab your reader’s attention.

“Creating a Memorable Character”: Tips on creating an unforgettable character.

“Mastering Your Muse–How to Make the Most of Your Writing Time”: A dozen tips to help you to turn those moments of inspiration into sustained writing projects.

“How to Beat Writer’s Block”: Ways to make the initial engagement in the writing process more enjoyable and productive.


William’s presentations are designed for students in grades 3 and up. Generally he gives four presentations a day for a price of $600 within Minnesota and $750 for out-of-state presentations.

Additional Information

To learn more about William Durbin and his publications please visit www.williamdurbin.com.