In August 2015, Odd Lovoll returned once more to Norway, this time with two grandsons. They visited the little schoolhouse he had attended, and they inspected the hills and fields he had wandered as a boy more than 70 years before. As he watched the two young Americans cavort with their Norwegian cousins, he reflected — as so many immigrants have done — on the personal gains and costs of migration.
The author of “The Promise of America,” a 1984 history of the Norwegian immigrant experience, Lovoll followed that in 1998 with “The Promise Fulfilled: A Portrait of Norwegian Americans Today.” He also produced focused studies of Norwegians in urban and rural settings, the latter based on the immigrant experience in and around Benson, Minn. Lovoll taught at St. Olaf College in Northfield for 30 years until his retirement in 2001.
In this autobiography, Lovoll recalls a childhood in 1930s Norway “happy as well as sad.” He was “an impressionable and frequently lonely child,” given early to introspection, which included wondering about the land across the sea that had attracted so many of his countrymen. “America became an intimate part of growing up and entered into the conversation on a daily basis,” he writes. He also brooded over the extended absences of his father, a seagoing whaler, including a forced absence through the long German occupation of Norway during World War II.
He was 11 when, in July 1946, he made his first ocean crossing, with his mother, brother and sister. At departure, he felt the pain of separation that had marked the leave-taking for so many. “It was difficult to bid farewell to our grandfather Odin, who remained alone on shore as the ship … moved out to sea.”
The family traveled by train from New York to Chicago, then on to Seattle, where Alf Lovoll had settled. “The changing landscape became a constant source of wonderment — so different from the land we had left behind,” the son remembers. Stepping off the train in Seattle, he did not recognize his father.
Making friends, going to school, learning English — all sparked a lifelong interest in “understanding how immigrants accepted and adjusted to new social and cultural demands and circumstances — or failed to do so … the emotional aspect ever on my mind.”
He tells of the profound impact on the family of the accidental drowning of his brother Magnar, 19, in 1950, and how that led to a “healing” family return to Norway in 1952. “That presented another mountain to climb. Norway had become a foreign country; I had become ‘the American.’ ”
In 1967, married and with a young family, Lovoll returned to America, where he became a U.S. citizen. In this latest book, he writes in a rather formal, courtly manner, but with whimsy and humor, the whole marked by a deep and knowing appreciation for his subject. He lived it.
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Two Homelands: A Historian Considers His Life and Work
By: Odd S. Lovoll.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 248 pages, $24.95.
Event: Book launch, 11 a.m. Sept. 8, Norway House, 913 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.