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A Norwegian American Journey

O.E. Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth" sparks a journey of heritage and discovery for one Norwegian American from Montana.

“The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied.” The title of the last chapter of O.E. Rolvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth foreshadows a haunting conclusion to a story of Norwegian immigration to the United States. Second only to Ireland in terms of percentage of population emigrating to the United States, one ninth of Norway’s people crossed the ocean westward in the 1880s alone, among them the characters of Rolvaag’s novel, and my ancestors. Nothing about their experience was easy—surviving the elements while adapting to an unfamiliar country and language—but they persevered.

Their descendants populate the Upper Midwest today, largely out of the cultural spotlight. (How many iconic movies depict Norwegian Americans, compared to, say, Irish or Italians?) Rolvaag was himself an immigrant from Norway, and his novels chronicle the Norwegian immigrant experience in places like the Dakotas and Minnesota. Giants in the Earth was published in Norwegian in two parts in 1924 and 1925 and in English translation in 1927.

Growing up in rural Montana, I was a bit removed from the Norwegian enclave in western North Dakota that my mom’s family is from. We ate lefse at Thanksgiving, but other than that, compared to my cousins I was not particularly in touch with my Norwegian heritage. I never felt a particular connection to Norway as a country, but do mention my heritage to Norwegians I meet, as there are a surprisingly high number of them in the Middle East, where I’ve spent much of the last decade. Reading Giants in the Earth, however, was an enlightening experience, and it brought to life the journey that my ancestors took from Norway to the Dakotas.

I was, of course, struck by the hardships they faced, which I knew vaguely from family stories and from Montana history class in school, such as the blizzards of the 1880s. But Rolvaag paints the picture with realistic characters, particularly the protagonist Per Hansa, who reminded me in his sense of humor and other things of a few relatives of mine. Per Hansa struggled to navigate a country where he didn’t speak the language. It is strange that if I could travel back in time and meet my ancestors like him, I couldn’t even speak to them. Yet if I traveled to the same time, or even much further back, in England, I would indeed be able to speak to people there and would probably have much more in common. While my bloodlines go back mostly to Norway, my cultural lines certainly go back to England much more than to Scandinavia.

My reading of Giants in the Earth happened to coincide with a few YouTube deep dives into country music history. When Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins strummed and sang together, they built on a long tradition going back centuries to the British Isles. Some of the songs Dolly sang at the beginning of her career were in fact songs written in England—adapted to the new setting of rural Tennessee, yes, but for a people with a more or less unbroken cultural line. Growing up in rural America, Dolly and Chet’s country music is more a part of who I am than my ancestors’ songs and traditions that they brought over from Norway, and by becoming Americans in culture, we cut ties to centuries of tradition and belonging. If America spoke Norwegian, I’d be singing the songs my family had sang for centuries. But by learning English, we started singing the songs that others had been singing for centuries.

I wouldn’t trade my Montana upbringing for anything, nor my American citizenship, or even the privilege of being a native English speaker in the modern world, but it does prompt some thinking about one’s identity and history nonetheless. Indeed, this was the theme of Rolvaag’s sequel novel, Peder Victorious, which follows Per Hansa’s youngest son Peder, the only one of the children born in the U.S. Per Hansa, the father, has since passed away, and Peder’s mother, Beret, struggles to raise her children as they meld into an American world that she is not a part of. She didn’t want to leave Norway in the first place, and considers moving her family back to the homeland after her husband’s death. However, as a neighbor points out, she would just be making her children strangers in that land in the way that they themselves were strangers in America. Nonetheless, she remains frustrated that her children have started speaking English among themselves rather than Norwegian.

Young Peder, on the other hand, is incapable of thinking about the future in Norwegian. The future exists exclusively in English, while Norwegian remains the realm of the family’s homestead and the Bible, both of which elicit less interest than the Irish neighbor’s daughter and school lessons on Washington and Lincoln. “God was undoubtedly being kept too busy over in Norway to have time to come here,” Peder thinks to himself. “The Americans were so much smarter than the Norwegians that they didn’t need so much help. America had men like Washington and Lincoln. The one had made the country and the other had come and set all the slaves free. God himself could scarcely have done better even if He had been here.”

Prompted by my reading of Rolvaag’s novels, I took a brief journey into the world of Norwegian cinema. With a lack of distractions during the lockdown, I watched a dozen or so Norwegian films out of curiosity for the country my ancestors left. They depict heroes of Norwegian history, such as in The Last King (2016), where in the early 13th century two loyalists to King Haakon III race to save his infant son, Haakon IV, before a rival to the throne can have him killed. As a Catholic (a product of my dad’s Irish side, though he is also partly Norwegian, as it happens), I had to chuckle at the explicitly anti-Vatican themes, as those seeking to kill Haakon IV were allegedly doing Rome’s bidding, even though Norway was still a Catholic country at the time. It seems a convenient rereading of the story following Norway’s subsequent Protestant conversion that the true patriots even then were anti-Rome, though apparently the Vatican’s objection to Haakon IV was at least in part that he was illegitimate and therefore not the proper heir to the throne. In any case, the chase scenes on skis through the mountains of Norway are well worth the price of admission, whether one is a papist or a good Norwegian Lutheran.

Among the most important real-life Norwegian heroes that made the silver screen are those from World War II. The King’s Choice (2016) shows the difficult decisions King Haakon VII had to make as the Nazis invaded. Should he accept Hitler’s offer to allow him to stay on the throne, as his brother, King Christian X of Denmark, chose to do? (Though it should be noted, King Christian became a symbol of Danish opposition to the Nazis by remaining in the country and continuing to rule.) The film portrays the difficult decision facing the king, as he weighed the consequences of staying and acquiescing to Nazi rule or leaving and risking his people feeling that they’ve been abandoned by their king. In the end, Haakon VII of Norway decided to leave for England and coordinate the resistance from there. His exile in the U.K. makes an appearance in another film about the Norwegian resistance, Max Manus (2008), where Norwegian resistance fighters briefly interact with the king as they train with the Brits to sabotage the Nazi occupation back home.

While the films of Norwegian heroes are interesting as an exercise in Norwegian historiography, it was the films of modern Norway that I found most intriguing. Among these is Oslo, August 31st (2011), directed by Joachim Trier, which follows a drug addict for a day as he is released from rehab and aims to get back on his feet. While the story is told from the addict’s perspective, the secondary characters will also resonate strongly with anyone who has dealt with addiction among his family or friends. Leaving rehab, the main character first goes to see an old friend who was once part of the same countercultural intellectual circles, but who has since settled into a typical academic life. He is writing about topics no one cares about, including himself, trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage, and spends most of his spare time caring for his young children. He has “sold out.” The recovering addict can’t understand how his friend does it, but that’s just the thing: As humans we are programmed to survive, to just keep on keeping on, and the burden of proof isn’t on those who think life is worthwhile, but on those who think it isn’t. Most of us just live, without contemplating the meaning behind each action, and it can be hard to explain that to someone who is struggling to find meaning in their life, and who has turned to substance to fill the void.

The masterpiece of my journey through Norwegian cinema is certainly the 2008 film Troubled Water, directed by Erik Poppe (who also directed The King’s Choice). The film is perfection, with a tragic story that encapsulates so many difficult issues without seeming like it’s trying to do too much at once. It is a film about guilt, grief, forgiveness and trust, the existence of God, the mystery of music, the difficulty of finding and keeping love, and the dual nature of water, which both gives and takes life. It has one scene on addiction more poignant than entire films made on the topic. It was after watching Troubled Water that I decided to write this essay. The film made this project no longer about some connection I might have to Norway, it was simply about a brilliant work of art. Unlike with the other films, I was no longer thinking about what life might have been like if I had been born in Norway instead of Montana. I wasn’t wondering why nobody was eating lefse. I forgot I was even reading subtitles. I was simply lost in a film for two hours while the boredom of lockdowns and uncertainty about the future faded away, not into a better world but a different one, one that held my attention without distraction.

Troubled Water portrays the same series of events from two radically different perspectives: a woman who lost her four-year-old son, and the man convicted of the son’s murder. In portraying the convict’s story first, however, we have built up a large store of sympathy for the young convict, now an organist at a church after leaving prison, before we properly meet the mother. In a news-like telling of events, most people would no doubt side with her. But by seeing the criminal’s perspective first, we can’t help but see where her judgement is clouded by her grief, and not informed by a rational understanding of events. I think it’s unlikely that the criminal would evoke such sympathy, and the mother’s reaction to meeting him such skepticism, had her side of the story been presented first. Actor Pål Sverre Hagen impressively navigates the role of the convict looking for a second chance, making him likeable but not unrealistically so, as would be the case if the film had been made in Hollywood.

Does a failure at one key moment of our lives mean that we are forever failures? And does moral righteousness in one critical situation give us the moral high ground indefinitely? Troubled Water asks us whether the mother’s grief can justify all her actions thereafter, particularly as she seeks to destroy the fragile new life that her son’s killer has built for himself. She is convinced that she is simply saving another child from suffering the fate of her own. And should the church’s pastor, a single mother, be hesitant to let her son be alone with a man who has been convicted of killing a child? If he can’t find forgiveness and a second chance at church, where will he find it? But for a mother, even a pastor, can she risk her son’s life on the belief that redemption is possible, and that God has a plan even for the evil that exists in the world, as she says before finding out what her new love interest is hiding in his past? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Troubled Water navigates them deftly.

The film’s masterful use of music recalls another brilliant film, though not Norwegian: Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). In both films, young men with troubled pasts find some salvation, or at least escape, in the keyboard: concert piano in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the church organ in Troubled Water. But more than the healing power of music, both films capture some of the mystery that makes music so appealing, the magic that can capture our ears without a convincing explanation as to why we like it so much or why it can make us feel something so powerful.

In the end, after my brief journey into Norwegian literature and cinema, I am not going to get hung up on questions of my identity. I am proud to be an American and to have grown up in Montana, and I don’t need to search for some strong identity beyond that. It is good to remember, nonetheless, that my family didn’t end up in Montana from outer space. I came from somewhere, and my ancestors went through extremely difficult circumstances to give me the life I’ve had. My great grandfather Ludwig Anderson left Strandebarm, Norway, in 1898 and ended up in Montana, changing his first name to Louis. According to records on FamilySearch.org, his family had been in Strandebarm since at least 1190, then the records trail off. I only looked that up after reading Rolvaag’s novels, realizing I knew nothing of my dad’s Norwegian heritage, only my mom’s.

What must have crossed his mind as he left behind seven hundred years of history, probably more, in the Hardangerfjorden? My five Norwegian great grandparents sacrificed their past to give their descendants a future in the land of Washington and Lincoln. Watching from afar, living in the Middle East as our country seems determined to tear itself apart at the seams, I can’t help but wonder whether we’re living up to that sacrifice. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s hard to imagine today’s leaders inspiring immigrants to see America as young Peder did in Rolvaag’s novels, as a land of the future worthy of giving up one’s past.

Sam Sweeney is a former congressional staffer and a writer and translator based in the Middle East. His writing has appeared in WSJ, National Review, Newsweek, Columbia Journalism Review, Catholic Herald, and elsewhere.