Just as a Norway House has opened in Minneapolis as an answer at long last to the American Swedish Institute, a Stillwater man is publishing what is being billed as the first start-to-the-present history of Norway to be produced by an American in decades.
And the two events are related.
Author John Yilek, 65, explains in this edited version of a conversation about his book “History of Norway.”
Q: Are you Norwegian?
A: Half Norwegian, from my mother’s side; the other side is German and Czech, thus the Czech name. I know my relatives in Norway and visit them from time to time — the third and fourth generations never lost touch. It’s great to go back and see the old farmsteads and visit with people, and of course they’re modern Norwegians now. My mother used to go back but she spoke an ancient version from the 1880s and our relatives would laugh to hear it, it was totally archaic. I learned modern Norwegian.
Q: Do you find today’s Norwegians to be like us? Drinking lots of coffee and all?
A: Coffee, yes. My relatives were so shocked when I would not accept coffee (because I just don’t drink it) they doubted I am really related to them or have any Norwegian blood!
One similarity is how nice they are. I don’t want to stereotype, but they are so kind and generous, putting me up for days, giving me gifts when I leave. The Minnesota Nice thing may be overdone but I feel it may be inherited. It was President Obama who said that [the Norwegian capital of] Oslo was just like Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Q: How did the book come about?
A: I teach Norwegian history at Mindekirken, [the Norwegian Language and Culture Program associated with the Norwegian Lutheran church of the same name in Minneapolis]. Most courses there are in Norwegian but mine is not, I teach in English to appeal to a broader audience.
To teach, I put together all these notes from hundreds of hours of research over time, and I saw an opportunity because there has not been a comprehensive history of Norway, Stone Age to the present, written in the U.S. or Canada or Britain or any English-speaking nation in several decades. A lot of research has been done in those 50 to 70 years, mostly in Norway, and a lot has happened in Norway since then.
Q: That’s a long gap.
A: Well, there’ve been things on the Vikings, or on Norway in World War II, or immigration, but nothing much on the rest of the history. A lot of things happened in 10,000 years, including the Vikings; a varied history that not many of us know anything about. In this day and age, if you go to college and study history, even European history, there is rarely any mention of Scandinavia.
Q: Do you find that even in Minnesota, interest grows diluted over time?
A: By now, probably the vast majority don’t think twice about it, even though we have 900,000 people of Norwegian ancestry. But there’s a core group that both takes it seriously and has fun with it, and they’re the ones, I think, keeping it all going.
Q: Can it grow beyond that?
A: There’s a big push on. Through the Mindekirken culture center and now Norway House next door, we are making efforts to get younger people involved. If you went to a Sons of Norway meeting in the Twin Cities, or anywhere in the country, the vast majority of people would be around my age or older, but there’s an effort to reach the next generation and even small kids.
Q: What can one talk to them about taking pride in?
A: Norway and other Scandinavian countries have been leaders in providing financial support to underdeveloped countries, in mediating international disputes, in being proponents of things like a clean environment, and spending a lot of money to promote these things as well as human rights, the rights of women, of various ethnic groups. Norwegians themselves take pride in these things.