This is the second book in a series of four, continuing the story of a group of people who left Sweden for America (I’m saying “America” rather than “the USA” as Minnesota didn’t become a state until 1858) in 1850. In this book, they arrive in New York after a long and difficult voyage, and then make another long and difficult voyage, by land and by river, to Minnesota, where they make their new homes.
There are many novels about the experiences of immigrants in America, but most of them tell the story of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – often from groups which faced prejudice in the United States, which Swedish immigrants for the most part didn’t – and most of them are set in cities, usually New York. The experience of pioneers in Minnesota is covered in On the Banks of Plum Creek, the third book in the Little House on the Prairie series, but the Ingalls family were neither immigrants nor permanent settlers in the area.
The characters in Vilhem Moberg’s books were both – and a generation earlier. They arrived in an area where there were only around thirty settlers for miles around. There were no sort of social institutions there. No school. No church socials. No societies to help new immigrants. Nothing like that. They were more or less starting everything in life from scratch.
So – is this the story of the real American Dream? In this place and this time, anyone can become the owner of their own land, and it’s all up to them – they’re starting from nothing, and they have to do it all by their own hard work. Homes and furniture have to be built from scratch, using wood from trees which the homeowner has to cut down himself. Meat and fish are there for the taking, if the settlers hunt them down for themselves. There are no aristocrats and no officials – there’s no-one to interfere and no-one to stop you.
However, nor is there anyone there to help you, apart from your neighbours and even the nearest of them are several miles away, and they’re faced by all the same problems as you are. It’s humans versus nature – bad weather or a plague of grasshoppers can wipe out everything you’ve got. The meat and fish might be there for the taking in the summer, but they’re not in the winter. It’s survival of the fittest – anyone with health problems wouldn’t stand a chance. Going back to Little House on the Prairie, Almanzo Wilder suffered a serious illness when he was only 31. His health was permanently affected and he, Laura and Rose had to abandon their home. It was raw and tough out there. It was so chancy – but there were so many opportunities too. It’s a story of extremes and opposites.
The people who lost out in all this, of course, were the Native Americans. They feature in the book, but only a little, and only from the viewpoint of the Swedish settlers.
The book finishes with two different takes on it all, expressed by two different women. One, who had a very difficult life in Sweden, is only too glad to have left all that behind her and to have been given the opportunity to start anew. The other still thinks of Sweden as home, and struggles to come to terms with the fact that she’ll never see her parents, her sisters or her homeland again. Emigration and immigration are complicated experiences. This book captures them, in a certain time and in a certain place, beautifully.