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.

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