Vilhelm Moberg and Ole E. Rølvaag
Telling it like it was
They were both born into humble circumstances in Scandinavian countries. One immigrated to America, where he became a scholar committed to preserving his people's culture. The other stayed home, where he became one of his country's best-known writers and social critics. Together, they gave the world an unvarnished view of what it meant to pull up stakes in one's homeland and rebuild a life in the Midwest in the late nineteenth century.
Ole Rølvaag was twenty years old when he came to the United States from his home in Norway, where he had worked as a fisherman. He settled in South Dakota, where he studied at Augustana Academy (later College). He later completed a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and then served there as a professor of Norwegian language and literature from 1906 to 1931. He began writing fiction, short stories, and poems during his early teaching years; his works are severe, dramatic, and unsparing in their accounts of the hardships of immigrant life. His best-known novel is Giants in the Earth, the first in a trilogy about a Norwegian family's struggles in the Dakotas. The book ends with a disappointing, oft-cited image of its protagonist's sad end:
"On the west side of the stack sat a man, with his back to the mouldering hay. This was in the middle of a warm day in May, yet the man had two pairs of skis along with him; one pair lay beside him on the ground, the other was tied to his back. He had a heavy stocking cap pulled well down over his forehead, and large mittens on his hands; in each hand he clutched a staff....To the boys, it looked as though the man were sitting there resting while he waited for better skiing....
Vilhelm Moberg was born in Småland, Sweden. He worked a number of jobs, from farming to glassblowing to editing a newspaper, until he became a recognized author. Politically active throughout his life, he supported socialism and opposed Sweden's trade with Germany during World War II. His most famous work is a series of four novels--The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers, and Last Letter Home, all published in Sweden between 1949 and 1959, chronicling one Swedish family's migration to Minnesota in the mid- to late nineteenth century--a story that mirrored some of the author's own relatives' lives. Two of the novels in this series--The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land--were made into critically acclaimed films by Swedish director Jan Troell in 1971 and 1972, with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in starring roles.
"They stood crowded together on deck like a herd of cattle," writes Moberg in the final pages of The Emigrants, "shackled in the narrow stalls of the byre during a whole long winter, and at last stretching their necks and turning toward the door when it began to smell of spring and fresh grass and meadows....The life at sea had undermined their bodies and souls. The land-frenzy was bringing them new strength. They had again seen the green earth. As seekers of new homes they had come sailing from the earth--now they were back on the earth, and felt life returning."
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