In Northfield, Minnesota, St. Olaf’s College was celebrating the 17th of May—the day the sons of Norway wrote their constitution in 1814, declaring self-government and independence from Swedish rule. It was 1907, just two years after the Swedes had released Norway and Prince Carl had become Haakon VII. Thirty-one-year-old first-year instructor Ole Rölvaag gave the address, which took on surprisingly somber tones:
When the ship carrying our parents westward into the unknown, pointed its bow toward the evening sun; when those on board saw the rugged gray mountains of Norway sink beneath the horizon; when the golden sun-rays played for the last time on snow-capped peaks—then sank not only a shoreline from view but also their country—as their country, Norway no longer existed.
Ole Edvart Rölvaag had left his fatherland in late July 1896. He did so not because of economic hardship, as so many farmers from the hinterlands of Norway, who longed for the vast, untamed, Midwestern prairies, had done. The Rölvaag family had successfully fished the Lofoten waters for generations, and when Ole was 20 years old, the skipper of the fishing boat on which he had sailed for six winters offered to buy him his own vessel. Nor did he leave for religious reasons. While pietist Lutherans fled the dusty orthodoxy of the established Lutheran Church of Norway, Rölvaag had devoured the Bible as a child and been confirmed as an orthodox Lutheran. He was comfortable with the traditions of the Norwegian Lutheran Church.
Ole Rölvaag said that he felt compelled by a sense of destiny to go to America, despite his deep love for his native land and his family. He was a boy who loved books—though his father had called him “the Turk” and said that schooling him was a waste of time, money, and effort, since he so often fell asleep in class. Ole’s inner world was formed by the darkly exotic landscape of Rölvaag—the imposing mountain peaks known as the Seven Sisters and the glacier across the harbor—viewed through the lens of the Norwegian fiction he borrowed from state-sponsored libraries. America, in his mind, was a mystical place, as described for young Ole by James Fenimore Cooper, in translation.
His longing for America was also shaped by stern reality. He disliked the harsh winters on the Lofoten waters, where men were nourished for months on end only by salt-cod and potatoes. At that latitude, the winters were bathed in darkness, and Ole’s imagination, nurtured by the sagas of the wandering Israelites and imbued with Norse mythology, was filled with melancholy. During the winter lay-up of 1893, a violent storm assaulted the fleet of fishing boats from Rölvaag, drowning in the icy, arctic waters many of the men Ole had known since childhood. When he safely returned home, devastated, he wrote his Uncle Jakob Fredrik, an immigrant farmer living in South Dakota, begging for a ticket to America.
Three years later, his beautiful and tragic journey began: a Nordic conquest in its own right that ultimately won understanding for generations of immigrants (Norwegian and other) faced with the stark reality that, though their fathers had conquered an untamed prairie, cutting sod for huts with their bare hands, they, too, had been conquered—by America. Yes, there was much to gain in America: Farmland was becoming scarce in southern Norway, and land in the Midwest was plentiful. But the loss was profound, and those who did not remain blissfully ignorant of their own heritage were condemned to Samson’s fate: eyes poked out, circling the salt mill and wondering what had happened to his great strength. By the time Rölvaag gave that 17th of May speech in 1907, he spoke with a new, more profound melancholy about his brother immigrants who
gave, in the bargain, a fatherland and received, as their part, a new country. Much, infinitely much, was lost in this exchange. The intimate spiritual communion between the individual and his people came to an end. The heritage which our Norse forefathers committed into our keeping and urged us to increase, we in too great a measure lost. And every new generation of Norwegian Americans will lose more and more.
Back in 1896, Rölvaag had arrived in New York City, where he felt like “a fly in a securely corked bottle”; he had then boarded an iron horse bound for South Dakota. He did not know a lick of English, had (literally) only a dime in his pocket, and his uncle failed to show up when the train arrived. Unable to communicate, he wandered down the railway into the night, forlorn. Finally, he ran into a fellow Norske, who took him to his uncle’s farm, but only after, as he said in a letter, “I saw my first sunset on the prairie, and shall never forget it.”
He recalled that feeling of separation in his 1907 speech:
If a man is to realize in full measure the potentialities of his being, he must first of all learn to know the people of his own kin. He must discover the peculiar situation and the special talents of his own race [for Rölvaag, “race” means the Norwegian race]. He must also know its weaknesses. It is fundamentally true that we are projections of those who went before us. And how is he to make contact with his own kin and with his past, if he is not able to do it through language? Through its language he learns to know his own people’s history and literature. This knowledge is of supreme importance to our cultural development. It constitutes our cultural roots. Without it, we become drifting vagrants, scrubs or tramps, culturally speaking . . . We are Americans, but our people have not been in this country from the beginning. We cannot truthfully sing, “Land where my fathers died.” For good or for bad, this is the truth.
Though Norwegian immigrants had trickled into the American colonies a few at a time, it had not been until 1824 that a party of 53 (mostly Norwegian Quakers from Stavanger) had come, led by Cleng Peerson, who had purchased land near Rochester, New York. They named their place the Kendall Settlement, which became a stopping-off point for many Norwegians on their way to the Midwest. From 1826 until 1910, Norway gave to America a larger proportion of her people than any other nation except Ireland. In 1834, six families moved from the Kendall Settlement to the Fox River Valley in Northern Illinois, beginning the second permanent Norwegian settlement in America.
In two years’ time, most of the members of the Kendall Settlement had migrated to the Fox River Settlement, and a few had moved to Chicago. From the Fox River, many dispersed around the Midwest: some to Shelbyville, Missouri; some to Noble County, Indiana; some to the Beaver Creek Settlement south of Fox Valley. On July 1, 1836, Ole Nattestad went north to Rock County, Wisconsin, were he founded the Jefferson Prairie Settlement. By August, two of his companions, Gullick Gravdal and Gisle Hallan, had founded another settlement in Rock County, just west of Beloit. Over the next decade, Norwegian immigrants poured into the Midwest, into such places as Muskego Lake, Wisconsin; the Sugar Creek colony in northeastern Iowa; Stephenson County, Illinois, and the western end of Winnebago County, Illinois.
The most significant new settlement of those early years was founded in September 1840 near the confluence of Dane, Jefferson, and Rock Counties in southern Wisconsin on the banks of Lake Koshkonong. Kaskeland, as the Viking settlers called it, soon became the new destination for Norwegian immigrants journeying to the Midwest.
When Ole Rölvaag arrived at Elk Point, South Dakota, in 1896, he thought he would work as a hired hand until he could secure a farm of his own. After three years of breaking his back, his plans changed. The work might not have seemed so impossible had he not been surrounded by young men and women who appeared to detest everything he loved: the books, the songs, and the memories of the fatherland. They were, he determined, infected with Yankee Puritanism—they did not dance or even smile. And none of them was clamoring for a library. “The only fiction [in Norwegian] I have come across here,” he lamented in a letter, “is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, On Skis Across Greenland, and The Life of Gjest Baardsen.” Rölvaag called this time his “Babylonian captivity.”
Entering a college-preparatory school (Augustana at Canton, South Dakota) he polished his English and quickly shed any resemblance to a “Turk.” After a year, he was accepted at St.
Olaf’s in Minnesota, where he studied Norwegian literature and began writing his first novel, Nils and Astri. By 1905, he had earned his bachelor’s degree and was engaged to the daughter of an immigrant farmer from South Dakota. He spent the next year across the Atlantic in Oslo, studying Norwegian history and fiction—particularly folklore and Ibsen. Spending the summer in Rölvaag (as so many Norwegian immigrants had done, Ole had taken the name of his hometown as his surname) with his family, he wrote, “The greatest blessing on earth is a home, and the greatest within the home is Mother.” Still, he knew he must return to his fiancée and St. Olaf’s, where he had been appointed assistant professor in the department of Norwegian. By that spring, his popularity on campus had grown so much that he was asked to deliver the 17th of May address.
Destiny called in 1923 when a famous Norwegian author, Johan Bojer, announced plans to come to America to research a novel on the Norwegian pioneer experience in the Midwest. Requesting a year’s sabbatical from St. Olaf’s, Rölvaag explained to the school’s president that he believed only he could write this novel. By Thanksgiving 1924, he had finished the first half, the story of Per Hansa and Beret Holm and their courageous trek to South Dakota, called “In Those Days”; by the next spring, he had completed the second half, “Founding the Kingdom,” detailing the establishment of the fictional Spring Creek community. The two halves were bound together for publication in Norway and America under the title Giants in the Earth. Both editions sold phenomenally well, and the 49-year-old Rölvaag was vaulted to celebrity status—especially in Norway. In 1929, he continued the story of Per and Beret’s son in Peder Victorious; and, in 1931, the year of his death, the final installment, Their Fathers’ God, appeared. Taken together, they provide some of the most profound literary insights into the ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious problems facing Americans—then and now.
Rölvaag had perfected an Ibsenian style, focusing on character development rather than plot. Indeed, a plot summary of Giants in the Earth would evoke a yawn from modern readers: Per Hansa and Beret Holm move to the prairie; they make a home and interact with neighbors in the Spring Creek community; some Indians stop by; Beret has a baby, then goes crazy; the neighbor, Hans Olsa, gets sick; Per Hansa freezes to death in the end. The next two novels seem even more uneventful: In Peder Victorious, Peder goes to public school with the Irish and grows to resent being Norwegian. In Their Fathers’ God, the Lutheran Peder marries an Irish Catholic girl, Susie, and they have problems because of their differences.
Real life, however, is not a soap opera. Rölvaag’s goal in writing this series was to move his Norwegian brothers and sisters to love their own race, and a lack of verisimilitude would have thwarted his efforts.
Per Hansa brings half of the world of Norway with him across the plains of Iowa and into South Dakota. He is a fisherman, not a farmer; he tears through the sod like a Nordic warrior, plowing the new field by day, piling up the sod for the hut walls by night. Unfettered by societal conventions—having only a handful of neighbors and no Sunday divine service at which he would have to face the pastor or the community—raw progress becomes his God. His hut is twice the size of his neighbors’ (though this forces him, much to Beret’s chagrin, to put his barn under the same roof as their living quarters). Always capable of finding energy for mirth and loyal as any paterfamilias, he nonetheless displays his utilitarianism when, after building his sod house and planting his new field, he discovers a set of claim-stakes on his land, bearing Irish names. With only God as his witness, he simply does what he has to do—remove them and burn them.
Per reverences the Lutheran God, but more as the God of his fathers than his own. He makes no effort to catechize his children. His chief act of religious faith is one of defiance toward nature’s God, and it ultimately becomes his undoing. For his friend, Hans Olsa, who lies dying, he dons skis, setting off through a blinding blizzard to fetch the pastor. Somewhere between Colton and the James River, he sits down to rest and freezes to death, leaving his family without their beloved provider.
Per Hansa’s death causes Peder to question the existence of a benevolent God. Years later, Peder concludes, God must be American.
He wanted very much to know whether Father could talk much English—Peder couldn’t remember. Whenever he thought of Father, of their jolly and pleasant companionship, words were unnecessary, for Father and he came so near to each other that they needed no speech.
—And why did Peder want to know that? . . .
—Well, he had just been wondering, could he?
—Oh, he was probably like the rest of ’em, who had come over here after they were grown up. Most of them blundered along as well as they could. Book learning, for that matter, was not Father’s strong point.
—But he could talk English, couldn’t he? Peder couldn’t conceal the anger he felt toward [his mother], nor did he try either.
—Well, enough to get along . . . she supposed.
—To be sure! Father could get along in everything.
Peder felt better. He thought hard for a while, and then suddenly demanded to know:
—Did he pray in English?
His mother was long in answering. When she did there was a hard ring in her voice, which Peder couldn’t understand:
—Father didn’t pray. And then as if to forestall another question, she added: He wasn’t that kind!
To Peder this didn’t seem strange at all. It only made him happier, gave him a feeling of greater security. . . . What would Father pray for? He could manage everything himself.
Beret, on the other hand, prays without ceasing. She brought the other half of Norway with her to the prairie: Love for the Norwegian tongue, an imagination that felt the ghosts of Indians watching them in the fields, an intimate acquaintance with the Bible and the Lutheran symbols. But these are things that are communally shared, processed, and shared again, and separated from the Norwegian community they had left behind, their constant regurgitation slowly drives her mad. When, near the end of Peder Victorious, Beret is warned by Reverend Gabrielsen that Peder is damaging his soul by acting in a play, she runs down to peer through the schoolhouse window. The Norwegian and Irish children, along with a couple of Negroes, are rehearsing Louva the Pauper, with Peder and the pretty Irish girl Susie Doheny in the lead roles.
What was this? There stood Permand [her diminutive for Peder] out on the floor, engaged in some silly manner with a girl—a girl . . . who was that girl? . . . God have mercy! . . . His arm was about her, her head resting on his shoulder, his face close to hers. . . . Beret found it difficult to breathe; her neck craned; her eyes had opened unnaturally wide, the pupils seemed to pop out. She couldn’t see clearly because of innumerable small sparks dancing before her eyes . . . She didn’t know how long she had sat thus when a voice, clearly and distinctly, spoke by her side: “Now go, and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Even after Beret unsuccessfully attempts to burn down the schoolhouse, our hearts are still with her: She is coping with tremendous loss—not just the loss of a son to adulthood and a young girl, but the loss of an entire framework through which a woman of her upbringing could cope with what Rölvaag calls “The Song of Life’s Dismay.” Beret is capable of great things: She raises up the farm of Per Hansa’s dreams; she rears three sons and a daughter; she keeps the faith. Her greatest crime is one with which many can sympathize: When Peder marries Susie Doheny, he blithely agrees that their children will be baptized Catholic. With Luther’s Ein feste burg ist unser Gott playing over in her mind, and with thoughts of rescuing her first grandson from the clutches of the papal devil, she secretly takes little Petie to be baptized Lutheran. Years later, as she lies dying at the end of Their Fathers’ God, she confesses, gasping for breath in the presence of Reverend Kahldahl, Peder, and Susie.
God help me! . . . Her priest . . . came here one day . . . a year ago last summer . . . I heard what they said . . . I could not . . . let it happen . . . I could not! I talked to Peder about it . . . begged him to have the boy baptized . . . he heeded me not . . . wouldn’t listen . . . To have my innocent grandchild made a Catholic . . . Per Hansa’s grandson! . . . How could I ever meet Per Hansa face to face and tell him? . . . And what would God think of me? . . . O God! Why did You let me do this wrong! It is the mother I have sinned against!
Beret’s situation is impossible because, if her religion is true, she is living as one of the children of Israel among the Canaanites. But, then again, so is Susie Doheny, who thinks she sees a demon on the bed next to her mother-in-law. Rölvaag writes: “Could Susie at that moment have flung herself upon her mother-in-law and torn her to pieces she would only have felt that she was doing an act that was pleasing in the sight of God.”
Peder was called “Victorious” by Per Hansa because he was born with a natural cowl; Norwegians thought this to be a sign that a boy was destined for greatness. He embodies all of the contradictions Rölvaag found among the sons of the Vikings born on the Midwestern prairies. He resents his mother for making him “talk Norwegian.” He hates Lutheran piety and loathes catechism class. His favorite holiday is not Christmas but the Fourth of July, and he memorizes the Gettysburg Address more readily than the Athanasian Creed.
On the exterior, he is Per Hansa’s son. Yet, latent in Peder’s mind is Beret’s Norse mythology and Lutheran orthodoxy. When one of the girls in Spring Creek, Oline Tuftan, is falsely accused of bearing a bastard child and killing it in the field, she is forced to read a confession before the congregation. She later hangs herself in the barn. Peder, a self-professed atheist at age 12, lies awake, contemplating the injustice of it all. Suddenly, a shadow flashes below his bedroom.
Godmother Kjersti knew about ghosts who haunted places because they wanted people to do something for them in order to get peace. . . . And now, and now . . . this was Oline who stood there begging him to stand forth and witness before men that she was innocent! The stillness opened wide and listened throughout the whole house, and asked him what he intended to do about it. Outside the window stood someone waiting for the answer . . . There—she tapped on the window! . . . There stood Oline, big as life. In her hand she still held the paper she had read from yesterday—now she beckoned with it!
Peder and Susie begin Rölvaag’s third installment, Their Fathers’ God, as husband and wife. But theirs is not really the marriage of a Lutheran and a Catholic. Peder is even less of a Lutheran than his father. He is, for all intents and purposes, an American. His farm is his life; he is captivated by South Dakota politics; he admires Abe Lincoln; he rarely speaks Norwegian. But life, with all its twists and turns, begins to pull at Peder, and a faint disdain for his own rootlessness begins to grow. Susie’s Irish Catholic community begins to reabsorb her—and threatens to do the same with their son, Petie. Suddenly, Beret’s queer ways seem less embarrassing, and strings of convoluted Scripture and theology begin spilling out of his mouth.
“Do all Norwegians do that?” Susie asked. “Do what?” His arm went around her. “Do they all read the Bible?” “Oh, I rather doubt it.” “Of course they don’t.” “Silly?” “Certainly,” she said, decisively. “Because they don’t understand it. That’s how all the different sects get started. Why, look at the Norwegians out here! You’ve got two churches and two ministers and neither one will have a thing to do with the other.” “Reading the Bible would enable [you Irish Catholics] to check up on the queer notions of the priests; [you] wouldn’t be quite so ready to swallow everything.”
“They’re not that silly.”
When Susie’s father takes sick, Susie moves in to care for him. Her increasing attachment to him and her people mirrors her increasing detachment from Peder. When the Reverend Kahldahl comes for lunch at the Holm house, he gives a frustrated Peder some food for thought.
You have been entrusted with a rich inheritance, an inheritance built up through the ages. How much of it, what portion, are you trying to get? Isn’t it your irrevocable duty to see how much of it you can preserve and hand down to those coming after you? A people that has lost its traditions is doomed!” . . .
Peder’s reply burnt his throat: “It would be folly to try to build up the different European nations over here. The foundation is new, the whole structure must be new, and so it shall be!”
The Reverend replied . . . “There are many, many things that don’t get into your school-books. I venture to say that your teachers taught you that the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious liberty . . . Those men were not fools; racial traditions were of vital importance to them. That’s what eventually brought them to realize that if they remained in Holland their children would become Hollanders, and what was worse, they would soon lose their mother tongue. Rather than suffer such an irretrievable loss they made ready and sailed for New England.”
“Can that be right?” asked Peder, dubiously.
The Reverend Kahldahl, more than any other character in the series, speaks with the voice of Rölvaag, capturing the ultimate American conquest of the Norse people. On the final page of Their Fathers’ God, Peder loses his entire family—his wife, Susie, and his son, Petie—because the racial and cultural polarization festering in his soul—the schizophrenia dividing his mind between his Norwegian heritage and his family’s Faustian bargain with America—strips him of his common decency and makes him unbearable to live with.
“I cannot,” said Rölvaag, near the end of his life,
blockquote>be at one with those who think that in two or three generations all difficulties will be overcome and will give way to a new and happy order. We are in the midst of a violent biological experiment, trying to make a new people out of a vast and diversified aggregation of racial and national elements. Biology is not yet ready to speak with any certainty about the probability of success. The old Norse mythology tells us that the end of the world, Ragnarok, came when the gods learned to know the power of gold, and when they began to take as their wives the maidens of other realms.
Perhaps, in Rölvaag’s imagination, the English word for Ragnarok was “America.”