The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg. Recently, I have been reading books by several Nordic authors, such as Hamsun and Solstad. I wish I could read them in their original languages, but for now, I am following English translations.

The first thing I have to say about nordic literature is that there is a deep feeling of human and social awareness in the stories. Even as a reader who has nothing in common with the characters, I somehow cannot help but feel a sense of empathy and understanding for the fictional characters in “Hunger” or “T Singer”, for instance.

This novel by Moberg was published in 1949, but the story takes place in the 1840s up to 1850. Despite the fact that the story unfolds almost 200 years ago, the author does an extraordinary job describing in detail all the characters, the social settings, and the norms of the time. Each character is meticulously portrayed, and all the family members feel alive. I would say this book is like a window to the past, enabling the reader to connect with the family and their struggles. It is an absolute delight to read this novel.

“The Emigrants” tells the story of a Swedish family of farmers who are forced to leave their land following a long list of adverse circumstances. Despite their hard work and willingness to do the right thing, life was tough for a small farm owner in the 19th century. Drought and deep social inequality were the strongest forces driving them away from their country.

The main characters in the novel are Karl and Kristine, a young couple who took over the family farm from Karl’s parents, Niels and Martha. In fact, the book actually starts by telling the story of Niels and Martha. Taking into account Karl and Kristine’s children, all eight family members live in the same house, and Karl’s younger brother, Robert, works on a neighboring farm because there is not enough work to be done on the small family farm. 

As the drought becomes worse year by year, Karl is deep in debt and has already sold almost all of his animals. Meanwhile Robert has abandoned his job due to harassment from the landowner there, and decides to go to North America. Robert, although has only a very elementary education, has read books about Natural History and has a deep sense of adventure and agrees with his brother to move with his family  to Minnesota where a huge community from Sweden is already growing.

The book contains several short stories about Karl and Kristine’s neighbors and relatives. Perhaps one of my favorite parts is the scene describing the packing of their belongings into a huge wooden chest. They will bring their clothes, farming tools, and kitchenware with them. They will also bring food for the whole voyage of one or two months, depending on the weather. They bring different dried foods, spices, and some ailments to combat diseases while on the ship.

The trip across the Atlantic took ten weeks, and during this time, Karl, Kristine, and 78 other passengers shared a reduced space in the quarters of a small ship. The food aboard the ship spoils quickly because in the 19th century they do not have refrigeration. Therefore, all they have to eat is dried meat and old bread. Vinegar is added to water to keep it drinkable for a longer time. No milk, no fruit, and no vegetables are anywhere to be seen. Due to the poor diet and unhealthy conditions, several passengers become sick, and some of them die. A good bath is not possible, and because of that, lice spread among the passengers. Without medicines and antibiotics, fever and infections are quite serious on the ship, and Kristina almost died from scurvy. She recovers her strength, and one day they finally arrive in New York, where they will start a new life.

This book explains in detail how travel was done almost 200 years ago. Moving to another continent was a challenging experience back then. While reading the novel, memories of the book “Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur” came to my mind. In that book, the author explains how difficult it was to travel the world hundreds of years ago without the help of modern technology.

This is the first volume of a four-book series, and thus far, I have read the first three books, and all of them are awesome. It is not just the main story or that of the several characters in the novel, but the whole book is an extraordinary source of historical insights. In fact, the novel reads as historical fiction. For instance, in the third volume, Moberg explains that Minnesota in 1858 transitioned from a territory to a state of the Union. Part of this transitioning process involved the Nilson family becoming U.S. citizens and participating in electing their first governor. This idea of people electing their own public servants seemed extremely alien to them because they originally came from the Kingdom of Sweden, where democracy was not a known concept. This and many other side stories make the book really enjoyable.

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