My Search for Nora

When I started conjuring my story of Nora Helmer’s life after she leaves her husband Torvald, I read everything I could find about Norway and its history, people and national identity. I quickly realized I knew very little about Norway, beyond the gorgeous fjords I’d seen pictured in cruise-line ads. I had little sense of what Norwegian life was like, now or in the past. It made it hard to imagine Nora in her time and place.

During those early months, my husband and I drove across southern Minnesota, after dropping our youngest son at college in Northfield, MN. We were headed to our new home in northern Nevada.  I watched the prairie unfold to the far horizon and thought: maybe I’ll have Nora immigrate to America. At least I know what this looks like.

That idea soon took me deep into the history of the Norwegian diaspora in America. When I traveled to Norway to find evidence of Nora and Ibsen, I kept stumbling across stories of the diaspora. The Norwegians asked if I was of Norwegian descent – as many Americans who travel to Norway today are descendants of Norwegians who left in the 19th century.

I was shocked to discover that between 1825 and 1925, nearly a third of Norway’s population left, most often for America. Some settled in urban centers – primarily Brooklyn and Chicago – but the bulk went in search of farms. They settled first in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. As those states filled and the Homestead Act of 1862 rewarded those who settled land west of the Mississippi River, the Norwegians moved into Minnesota, then the Dakotas, and even as far west as Seattle, where they encountered a coastline of mountain and sea not unlike their beloved Norway.

When I went looking for Nora on the prairie, I found Norwegian-Americans: hardy, humorous people happy to share a cup of coffee and tell me their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ immigration story. Every family seemed to have one. More than a few of these Norwegian descendants still live on their family’s original homestead farm.

The passage between Norway and America was not just one way. Norwegians historians told me that a quarter of the immigrants eventually left, returning to Norway, drawn back to the fjords and green hills of their native land. Those who returned – whether to live or just visit – brought back from America new ideas about society, class and individual freedom, ideas that shook up the conservative Norwegian order. They also brought money, and that began to transform Norwegian life. The diaspora became an exchange, linking America and Norway forever. It’s impossible to travel in Norway as an American and not feel this connection.

Below I’ve listed some of the places I visited in my search for Nora in Norway and in the American Midwest.

– Wendy Swallow

Inside “Torvald and Nora Helmer’s Apartment," located in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. Photo taken in 2008.

Sites in Norway

OSLO

I walked the city – a mix of old and new – for hours, past Oslo Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Stortinget (Parliament), Oslo Town Hall, Akershus Castle, through the Damstredet District, with its old homes, to the harbor, and past the area that used to be the Vika slum but which is now filled with municipal buildings.

Ibsen Museum (closed for renovations until fall 2021)

This is the house Ibsen and his wife Suzannah lived in from 1895 to 1906, at the end of his career, after they returned from years living in Europe. The study remains as Ibsen left it, and the rest of the house has been restored to the style of Ibsen’s day. He died in the house on May 23, 1906, after a series of strokes. He was 78. On the street outside the museum, there are Ibsen quotes embedded in the pavement. The museum offers guided tours. Norway has two other Ibsen Museums in Norway: his childhood home in Skien at the farm Venstøp, and the Ibsen Museum in Grimstad, where he apprenticed with a pharmacist as a young man and began writing plays.

Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Norway’s largest open-air museum of Norwegian folk art also includes over 140 historic homes and buildings gathered from across Norway. The Old Town section (Gamlebyen) is a reproduction of an early 20th-century Norwegian town. Included is an apartment building from the late 19th-century with each apartment decorated to reflect a different decade that the building was in use. One of the apartments is labeled “Torvald and Nora Helmer’s Apartment” and is decorated in the style of the 1880’s as interpreted through Ibsen’s play. When we visited, the apartment was being used to stage an intimate production of A Doll’s House.

National Library of Norway

Center for Ibsen Studies

An academic library and research center in Oslo. The Center “engages in multidisciplinary research on the nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen; research areas include textual studies, performance studies, reception studies, and theatre history. The Center is globally oriented and a leader in digital humanities research,” according to the Center’s website.

HAMAR

The Norwegian Emigrant Museum

An open-air museum of the Norwegian emigrant experience in America from the 1880s. Its collection includes a number of structures (small houses, a church and a school) brought from the American prairie and rebuilt. It also has a research library.

BERGEN

“Norway in a Nutshell”

This was a one-day train ride up into the mountains above Oslo, then down the cog railroad to the village of Flam, then onto a boat that wended its way through gorgeous fjords and past cascading waterfalls, and finally on to Bergen by bus.  A terrific way to get a taste of the stunning and forbidding natural landscape that makes up much of the country.

The Bergen Art Museum

An excellent collection of 18th and 19th century paintings. Particularly strong in Norwegian artists.

Hanseatic Museum

A peek into the working and living conditions of Hanseatic traders from 1704, with rough-timbered lodgings and apprentices’ quarters.

Sites in America

ST. PAUL, MN

Minnesota History Center

A combined museum, research center and shopping/event facility. Interesting exhibits and a library stocked with historic documents.

NORTHFIELD, MN

Norwegian-American Historical Association

A research institution dedicated to “locating, collecting, preserving, and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity and liveliness,” as it  website says. Located on the campus of St. Olaf College.

MONTEVIDEO, MN

Chippewa County Historical Museum

This fine local museum has a replica 1800s village known as Historic Chippewa City, with 24 buildings, including log cabins, a church, general store, bank building, and other commercial establishments.

MILAN, MN

Milan Arv Hus Museum

A small museum of pioneer artifacts and other prairie history in tiny but friendly Milan.

Exploring ‘All About Nora Helmer’

Return to the main page of All About Nora Helmer. Or choose one of the other features of All About Nora Helmer: The Play; Ibsen, Nora’s Creator; Nora’s World, In Her Day; or Nora Reimagined.

Are You a Teacher?

Click here to request curriculum ideas pairing Searching for Nora with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House.

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