My new novel, Searching for Nora, braids together two tales. The primary story is set in Norway and Minnesota in the 1880’s, and traces what happens to Nora Helmer, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s iconic play A Doll’s House. The secondary story is set in Norway as well, but in 1919, and features a young university student named Solvi Lange. She’s a lonely girl with a rebellious spirit and a fierce yen for the truth. She sprang to life so I could view Nora through the prism of time and turn-of-the-century social change. Solvi and her friend Rikka are some of the first women to attend university in Norway, and they represent a new generation of European women testing the waters of equality. Unlike their mothers, they can vote and work in offices. They ride bicycles and walk the streets unaccompanied. They wear shorter skirts, cut their hair. And they dream.
Solvi has a dream, though it takes her awhile to understand it. She wants to change the world and correct social wrongs, and she wants to do it through photography. As a writer, I’ve always been curious about people who make art, especially visual art, which demands a different kind of creativity than playing with words and sentences. By the end of World War 1, the field of photography was coming into its own, spreading with the popularity of smaller, easy-to-use cameras. Solvi inherits a fine German-made camera from her father after he dies, and soon starts taking picture of housemaids. At first she takes formal photos of them to give their beaus; but in time she moves into the kitchens and sculleries where they work, photographing their labor and working conditions. And the more she sees, the more she’s disturbed. She’s an upper-class girl, raised in silks and lace, but by the time she leaves for university she wants a different life, out from under the bourgeois conformity of her family.
Both Nora and Solvi set out on journeys of self-discovery. They are just two generations apart, but their worlds are quite different. Yet, like women everywhere, they are seeking to understand the ties of family, to find someone worthy of their love, to pursue something that will give their life purpose. Both Nora and Solvi are compelled to leave home, to leave the doll’s life originally set out for them. And once they do, they take on the world.
Wendy Swallow, Sept. 6, 2019
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