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The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

March 14, 2012 18 comments

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) Published in 1949.

From 1949 to 1959, the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg wrote the Emigrants series, which counts four volumes.

  • The Emigrants (1949)
  • Unto a Good Land (1952)
  • The Settlers (1956)
  • The Last Letter Home (1959)

The series relates the story of a Swedish family from Småland, a rural part of Sweden, who emigrates to Minnesota. Don’t ask me why the French edition has five volumes, the second one relates the crossing of the Atlantic. I suppose it’s included in the first book in the English edition.

The Emigrants describes the life of peasants in Småland in the early 1850s. As the law on inheritance splits properties equally between children, the heir who wants the estate must buy out their siblings’ part. If the division is done during the parents’ lifetime, they keep an allowance. It has a huge impact on their living conditions.

We follow the Nielsson who are small landowners. The eldest son, Karl Oskar bought the land but their property isn’t vast enough to support his family and pay back the loan they subscribed to buy the part that belonged to Karl Oskar’s siblings. Plus, the soil is poor, full of rocks, with small return. No matter how hard Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina work, they can’t make enough money to make ends meet. As the family grows, they risk starvation and cannot pay their debt any time the weather is foul and endangers the crops. Slowly, the idea of moving in America settles in their minds as they cannot see any future for them in Sweden. Despite their fear, they decide to risk it and settle in the country of gold and honey.

I understood that there were four official conditions for a person in Sweden at the time: clergyman, aristocrat, peasant and other. The Emigrants details the living conditions of small peasants. It shows how they are under the yoke of the Church and of secular power too. Farm workers sign contracts with masters that are close to slavery. They can’t leave the estate, they can be beaten and can go to prison if they escape. (The equivalent of gendarmes chase them and bring them back to their masters)

Moberg also puts forward the power and intolerance of the Lutheran Church. “Heretics” are chased and some emigrants left because they were persecuted and couldn’t live according to their faith. I saw there the roots of obscure American churches that these emigrants brought with them. This is something odd for a French, as these alternative churches aren’t widespread here.

It’s a tough life ; I thought the villagers hardly held together, there seemed to be no dances or joyful gatherings. It’s not very different from what Herbjørg Wassmo described in the Dinah Trilogy. Did the Church forbid dances and fests? It was a rigid life, dedicated to work with little pleasure. However, sometimes Moberg is unintentionally funny, like here:

Le pasteur avait pleinement confiance en Per Persson. Comme celui-ci ne buvait pas plus d’un demi-pichet d’eau-de-vie par jour, c’était un modèle de sobriété pour les autres paroissiens.

The priest fully trusted Per Persson. As he didn’t drink more than half a jug of schnapps per day, he was a model of temperance for the other parishioners.

Humph! If like me, smelling schnapps is almost enough to get you drunk, the idea of half a jug of it makes you shiver and imagine alcoholic coma straight away. And to think that half a pitcher is temperance!

From the literary point of view, the narration is very straightforward, it’s in chronological order, narrated in the third person. The style isn’t literary enough for my taste and I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages. The second volume is the crossing, I wonder why he needed 300 pages to describe the trip, no matter how awful it must have been. The French translator wrote in the foreword that he couldn’t translate the dialect and that the Swedish-English words spoken by the emigrants in America were impossible to give back into French. So, I suppose it’s better to read an English translation than a French one. Perhaps these difficulties retrieved some of the literary effects of the original text.

Notwithstanding, I thought it an interesting read, more for the historical side than for the literary pleasure. Between 1850 and 1914, one million of Swedish emigrants arrived in Ellis Island, which means that 25% of the population left their country. This was a surprise for me, I knew from reading Jim Harrison and Siri Hustdvet that States like Minnesota or Dakota had welcomed Norwegian and Swedish settlers, but I didn’t know that so many families left Sweden for America. To me, massive emigration of that time meant Italian, Jewish and Irish communities. It is a curiosity for a French as we don’t share that history of emigration to America. We had the same problem of land division between heirs and of properties becoming smaller but the French chose to have less children. As a consequence, the low birth rate was a concern for the different governments. Anyway, people didn’t leave, except to settle in the colonies. I wonder what it means about our people: are we less adventurous or does it only mean that we live in such a blessed country that people won’t go away?

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