Eric Dregni might have called his new book "Scandinavians for Dummies," but that would have invited all sorts of bad jokes. Instead, he settled on a more serious title for his exploration of who these Northern peoples were and who they became as they worked their way into American society.
Dregni, who teaches English at Concordia University in St. Paul, grew up with Swedish and Norwegian grandparents. As an adult, he wanted to understand the "why" behind the origins and significance of certain customs and values.
He does not seek to promote "Scandinavian exceptionalism, as if this culture is somehow superior," but to show some of what immigrant generations endured and how they influenced the larger society politically, economically, culturally -- and gastrointestinally.
Yes, lutefisk is here, but not simply as another easy, tired joke. There is meaning to lutefisk, lefse and potato klubb -- all those foods that cause Midwestern eyes either to moisten in rapturous regard or roll in contemptuous disbelief.
The Scot, Salvadoran or Korean among us, whether newly arrived or representing a fifth generation in America, will find a thoughtful explanation of how and why Scandinavians in such numbers made their way to Minnesota and surrounding states, and to what effect. Dregni draws on the work of major scholars, notably Odd Lovoll, professor emeritus at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and on his own experiences and research in Norway, where he lived in 2003. He wrote about that time in his 2008 book, "In Cod We Trust."
In this new survey, he shows how "Yankees" and others responded to newcomers who seemed to embrace "stoicism as a lifestyle." He touches on the history and legends of Norse exploration in North America, including the much-disputed Kensington Runestone and the theory that Lewis & Clark encountered among the Mandan Indians blond, blue-eyed descendants of Vikings.
Dregni writes about "notable Nordics" who made their mark in America's Midwest, including Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg and Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants who blasted the faces of four presidents into rock in South Dakota.
The political figures are here, too, including Minnesota governors Knute Nelson and Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson, the Lindberghs (father and son), and the left-leaning founders of North Dakota's Nonpartisan League and champions of cooperative movements throughout the region.
Dregni tells how immigrant newspapers helped keep the old languages alive -- until war brought suspicion of all "foreign" influences -- and of the immigrants' drive to build churches, colleges and other sanctuaries. He writes with affection and pride -- but not too much -- about home remedies, fashions and festivals. "Other than ethnic pride, how can you explain Swedes waking at five in the morning to watch a young woman with candles in her hair carry saffron buns?"
As we say, it's a pretty good read.
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, now lives and writes in Grand Forks, N.D.