Solvi’s Story: The Shadow of WWI

Norway, history, Searching for Nora, Norwegian-Americans, WWI, A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen

A WWI-era Norwegian merchant ship.

My novel Searching for Nora has two story lines: one about what happens to Nora Helmer, the character from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, and the other about a young university student in Norway right after the end of World War I.

Nora’s story is set mostly in the 1880s, but Solvi’s story begins in 1918, nearly 40 years later. I did this for several reasons. I have long been fascinated by the generation of women who came of age during the Great War, a generation marked by an explosion of opportunity for women in nearly every part of life. I also wanted a way for readers to see Nora’s generation through the perspective of someone much closer to Nora in time, someone whose story could shine a light on the significance of the earlier feminist thinkers and activists. And, finally, I wanted to write about the toll WWI had on all of Europe, not just the countries where the worst of the fighting occurred.

I came to this last purpose after reading The Beauty and the Sorrow, Peter Englund’s haunting book about 20 men and women swept up in the chaos of WWI. Drawn from personal journals, diaries and letters, the stories of these individuals, who came from 14 different countries, painted a much broader history than I had read before, and brought to life the personal toll from the disruption, devastation and diplomatic collapse across the theaters of the war.

I was particularly interested to read about the women caught in the conflict: the American-born opera singer married to a Polish aristocrat, trapped behind the German front with her small children; the young British woman working as a nanny in Russia who ended up volunteering as a nurse with the Russian army; the Australian woman driving an ambulance for the English forces in Greece.  These women survived, but they came home stripped of nearly everything else, shadowed by all they had witnessed.

I also knew that Norway, like several other countries peripheral to the war, had experienced significant suffering. A trading partner with both England and Germany, Norway tried desperately to stay neutral, but that became impossible. Norway was dependent on British coal at the start of the war. The British soon pushed the Norwegians to cut off German access to raw materials needed to make ammunition, using an embargo of coal exports to Norway for leverage. The winter of 1916-17 was particularly cold in northern Europe, and it proved excruciating for Norwegians with little to burn for heat. When the Norwegian government finally agreed to comply with British demands, the Germans sent their U-boat fleet to sink Norwegian merchant vessels. By the end of the war, Norway had lost 889 ships and nearly 2,000 Norwegian merchant sailors, spreading sorrow throughout the country.

The far-flung destruction generated by WWI must have been felt by nearly everyone from America to Asia, and I wanted that shadow to figure in Solvi’s story. So I started with Solvi prowling the Bergen waterfront hoping to get a photograph of a U-boat in the harbor. I also gave her a friend scarred by the War, Rikka, a young medical student who went to France to nurse soldiers along with her doctor father. Rikka returns haunted by her experience, changed in a way that resonates with Solvi, who has lost her father and broken with her mother. Together these two young women stumble forward into the 1920s, a decade when opportunities and optimism will flourish, but also a time tempered by the losses and damage of the Great War.

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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