Home > 1950, Classics, Made into a film, Moberg Vilhelm, Swedish Literature > The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

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?

  1. March 15, 2012 at 4:46 am

    Roughly speaking, the Germans and Irish (and English) were the main immigrant groups early in the 1850-1914 period, the Scandinavians in the middle, and the Eastern and Southern Europeans closer to the end, which was also the biggest period in terms of sheer numbers.

    San Francisco drew some French immigrants because of the Gold Rush, but that is about it in terms of French immigration to the US. We also purchased some wonderful and delicious French culture from Napoleon.

    So there is that.

    Why do you think the schnapps line is unintentionally funny?


    • March 15, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      I guess that the French chose Quebec if they were to cross the Atlantic. Is it due to our legendary language skills ? 🙂

      It’s unintentionally funny because the writer is dead serious all the time. There is no hint of humour anywhere in the book and he writes this as if it were perfectly normal. It’s such a contrast to our modern vision of alcohol that it made me laugh.


  2. March 15, 2012 at 9:22 am

    I was wondering why you read this? Will you read all the books? I have Wassmo’s Dinah trilogy or at least book one. I’m not so sure I would like it. Sorry for my new gravatar and you need to approve me again. Comment policy has changed… Blah.It’s now very complicated to post a comment when you have more than one blog.


    • March 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      WordPress: Please give back the pink gravatar, it’s almost not Caroline now!!

      I read this because a friend of mine lent me the series and I was intrigued. I admire these people for being bold enough to leave everything behind and start again in a foreign land. I want to read the other books but I wish I could skip the crossing on the boat. I’m more interested in their settlement in Minnesota.

      The Dinah Trilogy is marvellous, right up your alley. Her writing is haunting and very different from Moberg’s.

      Have you tried Annie Proulx? Her short stories about settlers in Wyoming are shattering.


      • March 16, 2012 at 8:17 am

        I thought someone might have suggested this book. It doesn’t seem like a book one would just pick in a book shop. You need to know more about it.
        I’ve had the Dinah book for years…
        I played around. Is that garvatar better?


        • March 16, 2012 at 10:38 pm

          Actually, my friend did pick this book in a bookshop.

          The Dinah books are rather short, it’s worth a try. Her style reminds me of someone else’s but I can’t find the name, it’s somewhere in my brain.

          The gravatar is better, why don’t you use your Twitter picture?


          • March 17, 2012 at 8:06 am

            I did think about it. Maybe. It’s on another computer, don’t even know how to import it right now….


    • March 16, 2012 at 3:01 am

      I was going to ask the same question: will you read them all? A certain interest in the outcomes for various characters is required for this sort of investment in 4 volumes.

      Good point about emigration. I read somewhere that people are leaving Britain in record numbers in order to retire elsewhere.

      BTW, glad to see that you have 99 Francs coming up. I’ve been curious about that book. Amazon reviews seem to be all the place on this one, so I’m counting on you.


      • March 16, 2012 at 10:33 pm

        I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll read the other ones or not. The problem is that I’m curious to know what will happen in America but I didn’t get enough attached to the characters to rush to the next volume. And I’m not looking forward to reading the next 300 pages about the trip from Sweden to New York.

        Here, people who want to move out when they retire just go to the South of France…We are deeply rooted in this country. Perhaps it’s because we can’t eat anywhere else for a long time. 🙂

        99 Francs, well, the post will be interesting to write, I guess.


  3. March 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    This doesn’t sound like you’re recommending this book… 😉


    • March 15, 2012 at 10:04 pm

      I wouldn’t recommend it for its literary qualities. It’s easy to read and interesting for the historical background. That’s not the best historical novel I’ve read though.


  4. March 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I think Zee from Reading in the North recommended this series to me last year. I haven’t been able to find them yet though :/ I’m sorry you found it less exciting as literature, but I’m always interested in history, so this will still be on my wishlist 🙂


    • March 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm

      Will you read it in English? There’s always a chance that the English version is better. I think Swedish is easier to translate into English than into French.


  5. March 16, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Emma – I am an amateur student of American history and have studied a little bit about European immigration to the United States. Yet, I never considered why the numbers from France were so low! There were racist quotas restricting many ethnicities, however groups like the Irish and Italians still came in the millions. You may be on to something when you say that France is blessed. Of course immigration was often spurred by horrendous conditions such as famine. Perhaps living conditions were a lot more tolerable in France then in other places This question bears further exploration.


    • March 16, 2012 at 1:57 am

      In France, you don’t have extreme weather conditions and it probably limited the risk of bad crops and famine. I don’t remember ever reading about a famine in France in the 19thC. But this is not a scientific answer, just my opinion.


  6. March 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    The French probably went to Canada didn’t they? Earlier on in US history presumably there were more French, down Louisiana way for example.

    Regarding the book, it sounded interesting initially but “I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages” and ” I thought it an interesting read, more for the historical side than for the literary pleasure.” are just fatal. Very honest I have absolutely no doubt, but not enough to justify reading a five volume series.

    Guy is absolutely right. To persist with a series like this you really have to be invested in the characters. In a way they’re like soap operas, what’s going to happen to these people? Without that element it can be hard to muster the push to continue.


    • March 16, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      Lousiane was more for the 18thC, I suppose. Yes, the French went to Quebec, French speaking country. We’re really bad at forein languages, aren’t we? Anyway, in Quebec, they want to import French-speaking emigrants, even recently. They recruit in France sometimes, it’s more or less easy according to your profession.

      “I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages”. Funny that you picked this phrase. When finished writing it, I thought about you and how often you say that novelists should sometimes write shorter books.

      Reading Guy’s comment and yours, I feel my mind shifting about reading the other volumes. I’m not invested enough in the characters.


  1. December 27, 2016 at 3:40 am

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