The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

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This book, by Alexandre Dumas, of The Three Muskehounds … sorry, Musketeers fame, tells the story of a Dutch tulip-grower who is wrongly imprisoned, falls in love with the prison warder’s daughter and has his prize-winning tulip nicked by a baddie. The said daughter then manages to retrieve the tulip and prove her admirer’s innocence. William of Orange intervenes, and our hero gets both the girl and the prize and lives happily ever after.

Unfortunately, it was very hard to take it seriously, because a) the story was so formulaic, b) the author confused William III of Orange with William I of Orange and c) the title kept making me think of “The Black Fingernail” in the Carry On take-off of The Scarlet Pimpernel. That was rather a shame, because a well-portrayed French view of the United Provinces in the 1670s could have been very interesting to read. Oh well. It was quite entertaining, if nothing else!

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Last Letter Home by Vilhelm Moberg

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This is the last of the four books in the saga of “The Emigrants”, and takes their story from the outbreak of the civil war in 1861 (incidentally, the author could have managed to get the date of the firing of the first shots at Fort Sumter right – it was April 12th, not April 14th!) up to the death of Karl Oskar in 1890. The civil war is shown as having very little direct effect on the settlers in Minnesota, although they all think very highly of Abraham Lincoln, especially after the passing of the Homestead Act. However, the Dakota/Sioux War results in the massacre of some of the original characters.

Life continues to be hard for the settlers, with Kristina, worn out by childbearing, dying in her mid-30s after a second miscarriage. However, their growing prosperity is contrasted sharply with the famine which hit southern Sweden very hard in the late 1860s. As he ages, Karl Oskar thinks more and more about the homeland he’ll never see again, but his children forget how to speak Swedish, most of them Anglicise their names and marry partners who aren’t from Swedish backgrounds, and his grandchildren never learn Swedish at all. It’s more the later immigrants to America, the ones who aren’t welcomed, the ones whose story isn’t covered by this saga of Swedes in the Mid West, who become “hyphenated Americans”, embracing two cultures. The letter informing Karl Oskar’s sister back in Sweden of his death is written by a neighbour, because none of the surviving Nilssons/Nelsons are able to write well enough in Swedish to tell her what’s happened.

Both for what it shows us about the lives of the people who built the American Mid West and for what it shows us about the poverty and oppression in Sweden, a country which is now one of the wealthiest and most liberal on earth, this is a very interesting and surprisingly unusual series. I’m rather sad that I’m at the end of it now!

The Settlers by Vilhelm Moberg

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This is the third in Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants” series, and shows the progress being made by both the Swedish emigrants who are the main characters and the area of Minnesota in which they’ve settled. More and more people move to the area, a Swedish church is built, a school is opened, a local newspaper is started, the settlers produce more and more crops on their land and build a bigger house, the main male character plays an important role in the community, and Minnesota is admitted to the Union as the 32nd state.

However, it isn’t really a very positive book. Showing the characters being affected by poor weather and a plague of grasshoppers is of course to be expected in a story with this sort of setting, but it goes beyond that. It actually follows all the old stereotypes of the dark, dismal Scandinavian soul. Two of the emigrants head for California to try to find gold. One dies en route, the other dies soon after returning to Minnesota, both only in their early twenties. The main female character descends into a sort of religious melancholy. It’s all rather gloomy … and it ends at Christmas 1860, with the settlers as yet unaware that South Carolina has seceded five days earlier. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out in the fourth and final book of the series.

Unto A Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg

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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.

The Lion of the North by G A Henty

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The Thirty Years’ War was gloriously crazy. It kicked off with people getting chucked out of a window in Prague. Then Denmark, Sweden and France, one at a time, got stuck in … into what originated as a religious conflict in the Holy Roman Empire … but also involved Spain due to the Habsburg connection. Oh, and the Ottomans and the Poles also got involved. With it so far? This book covers the period during which Sweden, under Gustavus Adolphus, led the Protestants against the Austrians. It’s rather a pet topic of mine, because it reminds me of being in my second year at university, when hope was fairly high and weight was fairly low. Our Hero, however, is not Swedish but Scottish: he’s part of a Scottish brigade fighting as part of the Swedish army. Needless to say, he has lots of adventures, carries out various heroic deeds, and ends up marrying a German heiress. The book ends not at Lutzen, when Gustavus Adolphus was killed, but at Nordlingen, two years later, when the Swedish army was decisively defeated – although Sweden remained the leading power in the Baltic until the rise of Peter the Great’s Russia.

It’s the usual G A Henty tale of derring-do, but he makes the important point that the Thirty Years’ War tends to be neglected in the teaching of history in Britain. That’s quite understandable, given that the last six years of the Thirty Years’ War overlapped with the Civil War, but it was a crucial period in European history and one which probably deserves more attention than it gets. Having said which, I think I was the one and only person in my year at university who insisted on writing an essay on Sweden’s role in it, but I’m very strange like that. Actually, I’m very strange generally … but that’s rather beside the point …

Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson

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I can’t quite decide what I thought of this book, because the book didn’t seem to be quite able to decide what it was about.  It told the story of three generations of Swedish women, but sometimes the focus seemed to be the lives of women generally, sometimes the lives of these particular women, sometimes how the experiences of one generation are visited on the next, and sometimes the changes in Swedish society generally. 

It’s a shame that it probably wasn’t intended to be primarily a historical novel, because there were tantalising snatches of important themes and events in twentieth century Swedish history.  The separation of Sweden and Norway.  The move from the countryside to the cities.  The rivalry between Stockholm and Gothenburg.  The influx into Sweden of Danish and Norwegian Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.  The effect on neutral Sweden of the Second World War.  The progress of social democracy.  The changes in the status of women.  They were all there, but none of them were really developed.

Interestingly, there were also a lot of references to Charles XII.  I’ve been reading books about Peter The Great since I was a kid, whereas I didn’t come at the Great Northern War from a Swedish viewpoint until I was 18 or 19, so I have rather confused views about Charles XII.  (I did actually have “Poltava” as my computer password in my old job for a while about 12 years ago.)  I need to find some historical fiction which shows the Great Northern War, and the Deluge as well (although that I do come at from a Swedish viewpoint, even after visiting Czestochowa!), from the Swedish side, but I’m not doing very well finding any at the moment!

To get back to Hanna’s Daughters, it’s not bad, and it is actually a bestseller, but I don’t think that it fulfils the potential which it very probably had.

 

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

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This is the first of a four-part series telling the story of a Swedish family who, after struggling to cope on their small farm in the province of Smaland during the Hungry Forties, decide to emigrate to the United States. They leave Sweden in the April of 1850 and, after a ten week voyage, arrive in New York, which is the point at which this book ends. The next book picks up their story as they head on to Minnesota. The family are fictional, but 1.3 million Swedes, many of them from Smaland, did emigrate to the USA from the 1840s to the early 20th century, the majority of them going to the Mid West.

We think of Sweden today as a very wealthy, liberal and egalitarian society. This book shows us a very different Sweden, a land with a repressive class system, strict “servant laws”, persecution by the Lutheran church of dissenting/nonconformist religious groups, and severe poverty. It also shows us a voyage which took ten weeks, was entirely dependent on weather conditions, and was made on a very small ship carrying fewer than a hundred people.

These books have really struck a chord in Sweden – there’ve been TV adaptations of the books, and even a musical based on them (written by Bjorn from Abba). Karl Oskar and Kristina, the main characters, have even got their own statue in the port of Karlshamn.

(One rather irrelevant comment! I’d always assumed that Nellie Oleson, the nasty girl in the Little House on the Prairie books, was of Swedish descent. However, it transpires that she was actually based on a girl with the distinctly Welsh-sounding name of Nellie Owens!)

This book is very highly recommended, and I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of its three sequels, all of which I’ve already ordered.