Asked by a Lutheran-pastor friend to recommend some fiction for summer reading, I immediately thought of Ole Rølvaag’s trilogy. I’d been thinking about revisiting these novels for some time, as questions surrounding the just and humane treatment of immigrants and immigration to the United States have swirled around in my head. How does immigration change our country? How does our country change immigrants? Should it?
Good fiction puts things aright.
People of a certain age (older than mine) tend to be familiar with the first in the series, Giants in the Earth, which regularly was assigned reading for America’s public high-school students. Deservedly so: It gives students a clear sense of the struggles of first-generation Norwegian-Lutheran immigrants in the Upper Midwest and Plains, and Rølvaag (himself such an immigrant) is a master prose-stylist—dark, exquisitely but not heavy-handedly descriptive, exploring the psyche of Per Hansa, his protagonist, without lapsing into psychobabble.
But generation gives way to generation, and the immigrant experience shifts from the brutal fight against the wind and the sod to the battle against tradition, the past, and identity itself. Peder Victorious continues the story along these lines, and nowhere have I seen a better treatment of the necessity, blessing and curse, of assimilation, particularly in the American context. The civil religion of Americanism, with its high holy day of the Fourth of July, captures the immigrant son’s imagination, as do the charms of the coquettish Susie Doheny, an Irish-Catholic girl whose rubicund features make her wholly other to the wan scion of the Arctic Circle. The cultural power of proximity is fully explored by Rølvaag: Is Peder drawn to Susie because of the raging sexual drive of youth, or because union with her represents the kind of synthesis that Peder perceives to be American? Can one really differentiate and separate these elements of human life? At any rate, she is there. Proximity means presence, and presence demands reaction.
The proximity of the Norwegian and Irish immigrant communities in semi-tamed South Dakota, and in the marriage bed of Peder and Susie, rounds out the trilogy in Their Fathers’ God. I wrote about Rølvaag in Chronicles over 15 years ago, about Rølvaag’s “Song of Life’s Dismay,” sung by the Americanized immigrant who realizes that the incarnations of his people’s memory in tradition and custom are buried in new graves, never to rise again. But rereading these books now, I have new insights, from experiences external and internal, which makes the reading a greater, richer delight.
—Aaron D. Wolf