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!

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