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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Libraries

Do you visit a library regularly? I do. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic library just ten minutes’ walk from where I live.  In fact, after having visited numerous libraries throughout London while researching The Forest King’s Daughter, I’m convinced that my library is the best.

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Islington Central Library

I visit every week–sometimes twice a week–to pick up books, music, dvds and also to print when my printer refuses to be of any use. As a writer I find the resources my local library provides to be invaluable. Not only can I search their online catalogue and reserve items (for free!) but I can also use the space provided by the library as a free study/writing space—no overpriced lattes required (however, if they began offering them I wouldn’t object 🙂 ).

I’ve used their materials to help me research stories as well as to assist me when doing practical things like attempting to fix the bathroom sink and applying for graduate school, as well as for not so practical things, like trying to bake a special cake.

cake

Of course, a lot of this information can now be found online, but I like the idea of going somewhere to discover, to explore, because sometimes sitting at your computer can get a little dull.

Recently I’ve taken out several books on Native American history and culture as part of my research for my next novel. The fact that I can get the books for free allows me to sample them in a way I couldn’t afford to if I had to pay for them all.  It means I can try out books before purchasing them, if indeed I decide purchasing them is necessary. I can also take out music which is related to the subject I’m writing about, painting and photography books, all of which help me to create and build the world I aim to depict, to immerse myself in the story.

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The library also allows me to dabble in other subjects I might not be able to afford to otherwise, like poetry. Recently I’ve been exploring the work of Seamus Heaney and Benjamin Zephaniah, amongst others. And when someone recommends a book, I can try it out before buying. The fact that there are so many free books available at the library gives me opportunities I would not otherwise have as I can’t afford to buy books every month, and books bring me such a lot of enjoyment. 🙂

Some people can afford to do some ‘retail therapy’ when they’ve had a bad day. I go for the ‘library therapy’ option. Bad day? Go take out a new novel, or how about a dvd to take your mind off it? Okay, I know a lot of people have everything at their fingertips through their computers now, but you still have to pay for films that you watch online, and music you download from iTunes, but at the library it’s free! And guess what, they also loan free e-books! So you don’t even have to visit to enjoy what they have to offer.

But I still like to, because I get tired of everything happening through my computer screen, a phone or some other electronic device.  Sometimes it’s just nice to go where there are books, and people. You know, the kind with arms and legs who walk places?

011 stick figure from morguefile

How about you? Do you use a library regularly? If so, what is your experience of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.

Until next time!

Preparing to write a novel: Research and planning

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I’ve heard it said that there are writers who write as the story comes to them, uncertain what will happen next, and then there are those who plan and outline to varying degrees. While I like the excitement which goes along with not knowing what will happen next, I am, usually, a planner. This is because planning gives me a greater sense of control over the work, to shape and guide it as needed, and when the going gets tough (and it most certainly will) an outline will never fail to point you back in the right direction.

That said, I also think there is such a thing as over planning your novel to the point of not listening when changes need to be made for fear that your ‘plan’ will be disrupted. However, with historical fiction it is especially important to know what direction you’re moving in so that you can do your research ahead of time.

Prior to writing The Forest King’s Daughter, I did a lot of research. Even after I started writing, I often had to go back and check some detail of daily life. I’d begin writing a scene where a character is adding jam to their porridge and then I’d have to ask myself ‘did they put jam in their porridge back then?’ The answer is no, not if you were a poor crofter. Sugar was a luxury (hence the special lidded box Mrs Johansson keeps her sugar in on a high shelf). Even as late as 1905 Vilhelm Moberg wrote about his father bringing home a block of sugar and giving everyone a piece of it as a special treat to celebrate the peace with Norway (Moberg, When I Was a Child, 1956). Also, their porridge was made from barley, not oats.  I often felt I could not complete a scene without knowing, for certain, if such a thing existed at the time. This made writing the novel exceedingly difficult, especially as it was the first novel I’d ever tried to write.

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But I knew this before I started and still felt I had to write it–needed to write it. As Truman Capote once said, “There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.”

So, how did I deal with this? Preparation. Before even beginning my research I started to outline my characters, their stories, their lifetimes and, of course, the novel itself. I drew up spreadsheets containing births and deaths of fictional characters and what historical events had taken place during their lifetimes that may have affected them. Some of this history was unknown to me so I located world history timelines, European historical timelines, lists of inventions and when they came out. Then I needed to begin reading about these things, deciding what research I needed to do and how I would achieve this.

Ingrid's family tree

There was no easy answer. I didn’t have any research experience and had no idea where to start. Someone said that the best place to start was to read books from the same place and time period as your novel will be set. Okay, easy enough. I did that, paying careful attention to attitudes, customs, ways of speaking etc. I then began reading historical texts, looking at old photos, paintings, reading ship passenger lists and old emigrant diaries (thanks to Norway Heritage, www.norwayheritage.com ). I contacted historical societies, visited the place in Liverpool where the emigrant ships departed from (the ships docked in England before continuing on to America), went to specialist libraries and generally tried to immerse myself in that time and place. I typed and filed as much as I could so I had something to refer to when writing. I used my story outline and my great grandmother’s itinerary as guideposts. I made a lot of mistakes and wrong turns, but I came back and tried again, because I’m very stubborn. And eventually I got there.

emigrant ship leaves port

Photo of a painting of an emigrant ship leaving port from Liverpool Maritime Museum

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Statues of emigrants on display at Liverpool Maritime Museum

ferry sunset 2

Sunset over the Mersey, would it have looked the same then?

Did I use all of the material in my draft? No. I couldn’t have used it all even if I had wanted to. If I did, the novel wouldn’t have made any sense. In fact, it would no longer even be a novel, just a collection of facts and historical impressions. So, was all of this research necessary? I think so. If I hadn’t done the research I wouldn’t have known my subject, my characters or the place they called home and so couldn’t have written the story.

How about you, have you ever written something which required you to do research? If so, how did you approach the research? Did you enjoy it, or loathe it? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to share using the comments box below.