Vilhelm Moberg, foremost chronicler of the Swedish emigration to America

Vilhelm_Moberg_1967 wikimedia commons photo

Arkiv 1967 – Vilhelm Moberg, porträtt, 1967. Foto: Okänd Fotograf Code: 190 COPYRIGHT SCANPIX SWEDEN (from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Saturday! For today’s post I thought I would feature a Swedish author and journalist whose novels and memoirs both inspired my novel and assisted with the research required to write it.

That novelist is Vilhelm Moberg, one of the leading writers in twentieth century Sweden and well known throughout the Swedish-American community. Those outside of Sweden who know of his work have likely heard of his Emigrants saga, which follows a family of Småland farmers as they emigrate from Sweden to Minnesota in the mid-1800s. The series follows the family through their long, perilous journey until their settlement in a small Minnesota town. Moberg himself had lost several family members to American emigration, that ‘great divider of families’ as he calls it in his novels.

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In his autobiographical novel, When I Was a Child, Moberg talks about how America existed in every Swedish household, through the photographs relatives would send back—they were always dressed in much nicer clothes than anyone had in Sweden—and which became their most valued possessions, to be shown off when company came. He writes: ‘In the letters from America relatives asked “how was it in poor, old Sweden?” Children thought that America was rich and Sweden poor’ (Chapter 1). Moberg himself counted more relatives in America than in Sweden.

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It was during his research for the series that Moberg himself moved to America—spending time in both Minnesota and California.  However, he never fully settled there and moved back to Sweden seven years later. While he appreciated aspects of America, especially getting to meet his countrymen and seeing how their lives had played out on foreign soil, many elements of the culture failed to agree with him (particularly the conservativism and religiosity of some of the settlers in Minnesota)[1]. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that his formative experiences contributed greatly to his writing. His biggest success as a writer was in his empathetic portrayal of the underclasses of Swedish society– ordinarily ignored by literature. His stories were written from the perspective of poor crofters, ordinary soldiers, factory workers and farmhands. In Sweden, at the time Moberg was writing, this was a ground-breaking achievement. As, perhaps, it still is today when the stories of the middle-class, white, male, straight and able-bodied are still more likely to be read than those written by or about minorities, women, the disabled and the poor.

It was this idea of immortalising the lives of common folk which led to my writing The Forest King’s Daughter as I felt that there were plenty of historical fiction stories out there about royalty and famous personages but few about the poor, and even fewer about poor women, especially poor women who dared to disagree with the establishment at a time when women’s place was in the home. If it weren’t for all the research Moberg put into his work, my novel may never have been written, as I drew on his sources and the details he provided both in his fiction and in his history series. So, thank you Vilhelm Moberg! 🙂

Which writers have influenced your work? Are there any writers you’ve read for research whose work you’ve later come to appreciate in a greater context? I’d love to hear, so please leave a comment in the box below.

[1] Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

Books by Vilhelm Moberg published in English (from Wikipedia):

The Emigrants (1949), ISBN 0-87351-319-3.

Unto a Good Land (1952), ISBN 0-87351-320-7.

The Settlers (1956), ISBN 0-87351-321-5.

The Last Letter Home (1959), ISBN 0-87351-322-3.

Memory of Youth

Ride This Night

A Time on Earth, ISBN 1-56849-314-2.

When I Was a Child, ISBN 0-8488-0302-7.

Nonfiction

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 1: From Prehistory to the Renaissance, ISBN 0-8166-4656-2.

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 2: From Renaissance to Revolution, ISBN 0-8166-4657-0. Both volumes translated by Paul Britten Austin.

The Unknown Swedes: A Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present, ISBN 0-8093-1486-X.

Sources drawn on for this post:

Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

When I Was a Child, by Vilhelm Moberg

http://www.kulturparkensmaland.se/1.0.1.0/752/2/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilhelm_Moberg#Works_in_English_translation

http://www.vilhelmmoberg.com/english.html

 

 

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Fairies and folklore in The Forest King’s Daughter

canstockphoto0193559 fairy ring

Novel excerpt:

After breakfast Ingrid went for a walk in the nearby forest. When she arrived at her ash tree she saw that a circle of frozen mushrooms had formed nearby — a fairy circle. Mushrooms like these were inedible — poisonous — and if you ate them you went straight to the enchanted world of the fairy folk, where you joined in their ghostly dances until you dropped dead. According to the old tale, once you landed in the fairy realm, time passed at a different speed. While you happily danced, thinking that only a few minutes had passed and you could soon be back at your loom, in actuality many decades had passed. All of your family and friends had died and no one ever knew where you had gotten to.  Eventually, being human, your body would run out too and you would drop to the ground with a thud and the fairy folk would carry you away to their secret lair deep underground to be presented as a sacrifice to their gods.

Ingrid never set foot within a fairy circle, even though she was no longer sure that she believed the old wives tale. Being near to one was comforting, despite the creepy legend. It was as though you were on the brink of two worlds, the practical everyday one and the one where almost anything could happen.

photograph of original Mimi Jobe painted plate

photograph of original Mimi Jobe painted plate

It was the idea of being on the brink of two worlds which really interested me in this legend. When I was a child, I loved fairy tales and fairies. My sister and I collected books about fairies and could spend many hours studying their intricate and detailed illustrations. What made fairies so special to me was their ability to take you into the realm of imagination, to a place where the normal rules didn’t apply.

Of course, this legend isn’t unique to Sweden. It’s common all over Europe and goes all the way back to Shakespeare’s time. In The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero intones:

‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds…’

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According to the legends, the ring was created by the fairies circular dance which burned the mushrooms into the ground. If you happened to enter it you would become enchanted.

Another type of fairy creature in Sweden is the tomte, which is a bit like a gnome. Nowadays they often feature on Christmas cards, a sort of Scandinavian Santa Claus, but they started out as house sprites.

At one point in Ingrid’s story, her mother is recalling an incident from her youth. She says, ‘I began to scream. Just as the sound escaped my mouth a dark figure emerged from the shadows. I’d never seen the person before. Part of me wondered if he wasn’t a tomte come for revenge as I never offered them anything.’

In traditional folklore, every house had a tomte, which helped look after the home and farm. They could be mischievous however, and so had to be placated with kindness and the occasional bit of food. This was especially so on Christmas Eve when the woman of the house had to leave them a bowl of porridge with butter on it in order to continue receiving his help, or rather, not invoke his rage.

The well known Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlöf, a Värmland native, wrote her famous children’s adventure story, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, about a troublesome young boy who abused the animals on his family farm. One day when his parents were in church and had left Nils behind to study his Bible verses, Nils caught a tomte in his net. The tomte managed to escape by turning Nils into a tomte. Nils was now able to communicate with the animals on their farm, who were angry with him for making their lives so miserable. To atone and return to his human state he must help teach their domestic goose how to fly like the wild geese.

canstockphoto8267748 Nils stamp

Of course, the most obvious legend in the book is that of The Forest King’s Daughter herself. This is a myth I made up based on the Swedish elk—also known as a moose in North America—being called the king of the forest by Swedish hunters. These kings of the forest are well known in Värmland, and though their numbers are increasing, they continue to elude hunters.   

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You can purchase The Forest King’s Daughter from Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Forest-Kings-Daughter-Kendra-Olson-ebook/dp/B00UBTSNBI/  and Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/Forest-Kings-Daughter-Kendra-Olson-ebook/dp/B00UBTSNBI/