Are Norwegians really happy? It's complicated.
Near the end of his 2008 book, "In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream," Minnesota writer Eric Dregni told of standing in Norway at the grave of his great-grandfather's mother. He thought of his great-grandfather, "old Ellef who was born here and is buried in Minneapolis and the baby Eilif who came to Norway to be born."
And he wondered, "What journey will our son make?"
Eilif — the spelling was changed so that people would pronounce the old name correctly — was born on that yearlong visit Dregni made with his wife, Katy. The boy is a teenager now, and he has taken a big step in his own Norwegian journey, accompanying his father to his birthplace outside Trondheim. Eric Dregni wanted to see what's happened to Norway and Norwegians in the intervening years and whether the country deserves its place at or near the top of annual listings of the happiest places to live.
Much remains as he remembers it. And with his son offering new perspectives, Dregni acts again as an engaging, discerning tour guide in his latest offering, "For the Love of Cod: A Father and Son's Search for Norwegian Happiness."
Dregni, who teaches at Concordia University in St. Paul, has written 20 books, many of them set in Norway or Minnesota, including the 2011 "Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America." Whether considering Norwegians or their American cousins, his writing tends to the light, humorous and affectionate, but he will focus on the dark, as well. He delights in quaint customs, but he doesn't promote "Scandinavian exceptionalism," as if this culture is better than others.
In his earlier "In Cod We Trust," he describes a wealthy, modern nation so different from the poor country his great-grandfather left in 1893. He told of how Norway paid for the birth of his son, how few have too much, fewer have too little, and how modern Norway has held onto old ways and values that many in Norwegian America would recognize and admire. It was more travel memoir than social commentary, but it had to touch anyone who has retraced or dreamed of retracing an immigrant ancestor's journey.
This latest book revisits many of those earlier themes — the enduring hold of Janteloven, or Jante's Law, which preaches and enforces conformity and modesty; the regard for privacy and the lure of escape to a mountain meadow hytta; the broad acceptance of high taxes to sustain a cradle-to-grave social welfare system.
But he remarks change, too, and issues — immigration, sharpened political divisions, oil production vs. environmental consciousness — that threaten the idea of Norway as a happy place, Norwegians as happy, united, secure and content.
"I wonder how Eilif will look back on our trip," Dregni writes. "Who knows what journey he'll take and if he'll return to Norway someday, perhaps even with his own children."
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune columnist, lives, writes and teaches in North Dakota.
For the Love of Cod
By: Eric Dregni.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $22.95.
Event: In conversation with Sasha Aslanian, 7 p.m. May 6, Moon Palace Books via Crowdcast, register at bit.ly/3wFZWtV.