When you write a novel, you never know what readers will take away from it. A reader recently thanked me for my book Searching for Nora because of my focus on the Norwegian immigrant prairie experience. She was grateful because she knew little about her own family history beyond the fact that they had emigrated from Norway to Minnesota in the late nineteenth century. She said her grandmother, who might have been a font of family lore, had been reduced to a “silent, little old lady” by the time my reader met her. Unfortunately, the reader’s grandfather didn’t communicate much, either. As a child, when her family visited these grandparents, everyone sat around mostly in silence, eating wafer cookies, she said. No one shared family stories.
Her email made me think about how I came to know the stories of Norwegian immigrants and other prairie settlers. For some reason, I have always had a fascination with prairie life. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books as a child, then moved on to the prairie classics in college, including O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, and Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Later I read Grass of the Earth by Aagot Raaen, a haunting memoir of growing up on a very poor farm in the Dakotas before the turn of the century. Once I started work on Searching for Nora, I read many first-hand accounts of pioneer lives in the Norwegian American Historical Association archives at St. Olaf College. I read about families who lost children to diphtheria, about farm accidents and harsh winters, crop losses and debt. What emerged was a harsh reality: prairie life back then was a relentless struggle, full of risk.
I suspect that many of those immigrant pioneers packed away their stories – the crushing poverty, the endless hoping that conditions would improve – because they were too painful to tell. Years after I first read the Little House on the Prairie books, I found some of the scholarship on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, and it turned out their life was much darker than the stories Wilder told in her children’s version. The Ingalls lost a son, Laura was hired out as a servant when she was still quite young, money was always tight. No wonder Wilder left out those details.
This reluctance to share stories of difficult times reminds me of those who fought in WWII but rarely talked about it. My father, who was in the Pacific as a young naval officer, scarcely spoke about the war until he got dementia as an old man, and then it was as if a dam had burst. The stories were poignant, and many of them were harrowing. It was probably best I hadn’t heard them as a child. And I have a friend whose parents survived a Nazi work camp as young teenagers, and then never spoke about it. That silence must be an effort to protect the next generation, to bestow a kindness on their children and grandchildren by shielding them.
My research for Searching for Nora left me with a profound respect for all the immigrants who came to America looking for a better life. They didn’t always find it; that is clear from the accounts. But they mostly persevered, through unbelievable challenges. The woman who shared her appreciation for my book said this about it: “What Nora has done for me is to (give me) possible histories, her stories of grief and just plain dealing with life to provide and to survive. I have a deeper understanding now of our family’s background, their inabilities to speak of the past, and more compassion for who they all were. Your words fill in huge gaps in my understanding of who I am. And I am most grateful – to come home to a deeper sense of who we all are and who they were long before I knew them.”
Wendy Swallow, Dec. 13, 2019
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