Many Minnesotans of Swedish descent are familiar with Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants,” a mid-20th-century series of novels portraying the achievements and disappointments of Swedish immigrant life in rural Minnesota a century earlier. The story of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson became a deeply moving two-part film series starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann.
Ola Larsmo’s epic novel “Swede Hollow” is a stirring complement to that work and a timely reminder of the trials and uncertainties often faced by immigrants — and the courage they show in overcoming them.
These Swedes of the early 1900s shared that shanty-pocked stretch along a fetid Phalen Creek with equally poor Italian and Irish immigrants, but the Swedes were most numerous and gave the place its name.
Larsmo, a prizewinning Swedish author and journalist, made extensive use of Swedish and Minnesota historical archives, contemporary newspaper accounts and other sources. His novel was first published in Sweden in 2016 and was turned into a successful play at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre. The English edition is by Tiina Nunnally, widely considered the pre-eminent translator of Scandinavian literature.
It is the story of the Klar family, Gustav and Anna and their three young children, from their departure from Sweden in 1897 through the hard, day-to-day life in the Hollow. There, they endured the death of a child, the struggle to find work as railroad and mill laborers, seamstresses and laundresses, and the slow, tentative assimilation into the new world beyond Dayton’s Bluff and across the Mississippi River. It is a story of pride and shame, joy and tragedy, looking back and not looking back.
“It’s time,” Gustav tells Anna, gently urging her to put away the black mourning shawl she had worn since their boy Carl died from typhoid carried through the Hollow by the sewer-creek. It was time to stop blaming themselves and their desperate flight from home for his death. “We’re here now,” Gustav says. “This is where we’re supposed to be. … Nothing has turned out the way we thought it would, but this is where we are now. He’s gone, but we’re here. And that’s how it will be.”
You can’t help but think back to that moment when the novel ends generations later in 2007, as a young Minnesotan bikes to the Hollow, long emptied of people, and shouts “Ancestors of mine!” He has come to tell them something important, he says, and it is a message sure to tug at the heart of every immigrant and every descendant of an immigrant. He and his wife are going to have a baby. “And we want you to know … that without you, we wouldn’t be here.”
By: Ola Larsmo, translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 312 pages, $27.
Events Wednesday: Talk by Larsmo at 1 p.m., free with museum admission, followed by book launch party at 7 p.m., $15-$20, American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls.
Thursday: Walking tour of East Side with Larsmo, 4:30 p.m.; reading at 6:30, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul.
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, lives in Grand Forks, N.D., where he teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota.