The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015. Penguin Audio. ISBN 9781611763731). Alright. My wife Rene’ and I didn’t actually listen to the entire story on our way to Lake Sakakawea State Park to spend a long weekend with our son Dylan and his wife Shelly. We were near the finish line, close the end of this very gripping thriller, when we pulled the blue Pacifica and boat and trailer into our campsite. There were 2 and 1/2 disks left to the tale which, once we finished our time at the park, we gobbled up on the way home. All in all, a satisfying yarn. Here’s what I think.
Hawkins is a master of this slowly unfolding tale , a story reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best. Her writing, however, at times, became a bit bogged down in narrative description when I so urgently wanted the characters to move along. There’s a bit of mystery at the front end of the tale, what with the disappearance of a troubled young wife, Meghan Hipwell from the neighborhood that the protagonist, Rachel Watson, used to live in. Rachel is divorced from Tom, who, during their marriage, took up with Anna. Tom and Anna are now happily married, living with their infant daughter in the bungalow that Tom and Rachel once called home. The Watson house is a few doors down from the home of Meghan and Scott Hipwell. The author does a nice job of describing the trains that roll past the Watson and Hipwell bungalows perched on the edge of a London suburb. It is on one of these local trains that Rachel, pretending to commute to work to appease her landlady, sees what she thinks to be a crime at the Hipwell house. At first, she thinks nothing of what she’s seen. But then, as the disappearance of Meghan remains unsolved, Rachel decides to tell the police what she knows. Or thinks she knows.
Ms. Hawkins has drawn a fine, fine character in giving us Rachel Watson, a woman seemingly stuck in the past, unable to give up a marriage that has long since died, a woman whose affinity for drink renders her version of what she saw from the train suspect and unreliable when she finally reveals what she knows, or thinks she knows, to the police. The actresses portraying the three main characters all fit their parts in this audio version of the book. The voices of Rachel and Meghan are especially compelling. There is plenty of psychological drama to this story though, truth be told, I figured out who the killer was about 1/3 of the way through the story. The fact that the author didn’t do a better job of providing additional suspects, however, doesn’t detract from Girl on the Train being a “good read.”
A great way to spend hours in the car rolling over the North Dakota prairie.
4 stars out of 5.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1990. Vintage Classics Edition. ISBN 9780679722762)
October 4, 2014 through July 26, 2015. That’s how long it took me to plow through Joyce’s so-called “masterpiece” of modernist fiction. I’m sorry, but I must be a dullard, a low intellect, a stupid person. There were, throughout the book (supposedly a chronicle of one day in the life of Dublin advertising agent, Leopold Bloom) moments of clarity where I almost understood what the author was trying to portray or explain. And then there were great long passages of nonsensical gibberish, such as the “dream sequence” written in the form of a script for a very confused and poorly executed stage play. The portion of the book that frustrated me the most, this imagined (I expect by Bloom as he sat drinking with his companion, Stephen Dedalus in various pubs about town after the funeral of a mutual friend) sequence, from page 429-609 in my copy of the tome, made me want to cry out in anguish, like an Irish child enduring famine. My pain was not caused by starvation of the stomach or the organs or my skin, mind you, but of the mind! I am not a scholar. I haven’t read the Odyssey since I was forced to do so by Miss Endrizzi in 11th grade English. So, to my dimwitted mind, if there is a connection between the wanderings of Bloom and Dedalus and the conniving and fornicating of Bloom’s long-suffering songstress wife, Molly, to Homer’ epic poem and its characters, it was completely lost on me.
I read to learn. I read to be entertained. And while Ulysses certainly includes references, either in dialogue or narration, to every possible topic under the sun-from physics to astronomy to Mormonism to Irish history to sex (wholesome or trysts driven by fetish)-the educational attributes of this long winded tale became a blur in my eyes and a headache for my brain. While attempting to make sense of this book, I didn’t keep a dictionary handy to decipher the language choices Joyce weaves into this meandering, mind boggling excursion. If I had looked up every term, every word I didn’t recognize, I would still be trudging through the first one-third of the book a full ten months after I began my reading quest!
I will say this: The unusual, experimental style that Joyce ends the book with-sentences that never end and a complete dearth of punctuation and capitalization-told as it was from the perspective of Molly Bloom, was the most entertaining and intriguing part of the novel. I felt some small measure, as a dogged reader trying to understand and follow Joyce’s various slights of hand that led, in slow, agonizing succession, down literary blind alley after blind alley, of success when I read that last section of the book and came to finally understand Molly Bloom’s perspective regarding a once blissful life lost to domestic drudgery. The ending and the beginning, where we meet young Dedalus, are the only portions of the novel I have any recollection of or appreciation for. The five hundred pages in between? Forgettable, like a bad hangover.
Oh. Just so you know. I’ll not be attempting to navigate through the (reportedly) even more difficult waters of Finnigan’s Wake. I’ve already wasted enough valuable reading time on a story that makes no sense and brought me only the slimmest of enjoyment.
2 stars out of 5. Not a book to read for enjoyment.
Last year was the year of the great stone walleye deception. I’ll not bore you with the details. You can read about it in the archives (“A New Faith is Born!”). Suffice it to say, this year’s annual Octogenarian fishing trip to Elsie Lake, Ontario as guests of the Litman family was uneventful. Whereas last year, in addition to the stone walleye caper, our group experienced an unexpected evening in a motel in Ignace, this year was sedate, contemplative, and involved moments of fishing frenzy followed by hours of searching for fish on the choppy cold waters of a Canadian wilderness lake. I drove my blue Pacifica into Duluth to pick up my father Harry, George Millard, and Walter “Fritz” Mondale. George and Fritz were staying at the Willard Munger Inn. After trying out all of the ritzy roosts in town over the twenty or more years of this annual fishing sojourn, a couple of years back the two old friends settled on staying at the Willard, a motel my uncle built back in the 1950s and now run by his grandson, Jeff. After picking up George and Fritz (and nearly forgetting George’s suitcase in the process!), we headed towards UMD’s Heaney Hall to pick up my old man. The fact that my passengers were staying in a motel named after a DFL politician and in an apartment complex named after one of the founding fathers of the DFL Party should not be lost on the reader. These men are unabashed Liberals with a capital “L”. And oh the stories and the banter between Duluth and Grand Marais, where we stopped for breakfast at the Blue Water Cafe and where Sammy Perrella and his son, Tony waited for us! The collective history and wisdom in the Pacifica was something to behold and left me, as the youngest buck in the herd, in awe of the accomplishments of the men I was ferrying to Ontario. Over breakfast, Tony, a wide-eyed economics major at the University of St. Thomas (a school George once taught at) listened to the old men pontificate and philosophize. Sammy, who since our last excursion to Elsie, had suffered and survived a stroke, smiled, the residuals of his scare hidden by therapy and determination, as he watched his son engage with Fritz, a man who has held the second highest office in the land and served as our nation’s ambassador to Japan.
We crossed the border without incident and arrived at Ignace Airways a few hours later. We filled two float planes; a De Havilland Beaver and an Otter with food, fishing gear, suitcases, gasoline, and propane and, one after the other, the planes lumbered across the watery surface of an Ontario lake before becoming airborne for the short flight to Elsie. The landings were smooth. The planes were quickly unloaded in turn and re-loaded with garbage, gear, and passengers for the return to Ignace. The departing crew had been at the Litman camp for a week getting the place ready for our party. Most of the heavy lifting had been done by the time we set foot on the wooden dock outside the cabin. After stowing gear and rolling out our sleeping bags on our bunks, the crew, which now included Ross and Jay Litman, and Doc Bob Donley, distinguished neurosurgeon and noted conservative (the foil for many of my father and Fritz Mondale’s kinky liberal ideals) headed out onto the lake. The walleye were biting, though, true to his serious nature when it comes to fishing, the Sheriff (Ross) deadpanned that “they’re just not biting like they should.”
I was given the task of guiding Sam and Tony. Now understand: I am not a great fisherman and I am certainly no expert on the whiles and whereabouts of Lake Elsie walleye. But, in the end, we found fish. Plenty of fish to keep our boat occupied until the sky darkened and it was time to head back to camp.
Saturday dawned and the place revealed a familiar routine. Jay would, for the most part when not spelled by Ross or Sam, cook our meals. Big, steaming lumberjack-style breakfasts welcomed sleepy fishermen each morning: eggs, pancakes, sausage, ham, bacon, and toast, all punctuated with coffee that, if Ross was the first one up, barely flowed out of the pot given its tarry consistency. Caffeine free? Hardly. The first meal of the day was followed by clean up, with George and I in charge of the dishes, and the others pitching in where needed. Then it was back into the boats for late morning and afternoon fishing, followed by naps, reading Helen Litman’s wide-ranging library of paperback novels, and steam baths in the camp’s wood-fired sauna. After one of the sauna baths, Doc Donley braved the frigid lake fully equipped with goggles and snorkel, patrolling the water off the dock in search of god-knows-what.
Sunday found me guiding George and Sammy. Again, I got lucky and, despite my lack of fishing prowess, found the walleye. We also netted the occasional lake trout and whitefish, along with a few small mouth bass, though the primary catch was walleye, fished shallow and with pink and white jigs tipped with minnows or worms and dragged slowly along the lake’s rocky bottom. Having purchased a conservation license, I didn’t keep any fish. Only walleye within the appropriate slot that were foul hooked, the barbs stuck deep in the fish, were kept for the frying pan. Ross’s classic outdoor fish fry, one of the highlights of these trips, loomed in the future but we had time, we all thought, to catch and keep what we’d need for the feast.
Sunday night, the weather turned and rain pounded the lake. The storm scattered the walleye and exposed my guiding deficiencies. Monday, George and Sammy and I worked hard to find fish when we were finally able to get out but the walleye were few and far between.
The frenzy, the ease of the first two and a half days of fishing, was replaced by long, extended periods between walleye or trout or bass or whitefish. But the food. And the company. Ah. The meals; ribs and brisket, burgers and brats, Sammy’s pizza and pasta, and a host of other culinary delights; along with lively political, religious, philosophical, legal, medical, and sports discussions filled any void caused by the diminished appetites of the walleye. We didn’t solve the world’s problems or come up with concrete advice to send along to the new pope, but we did have spirited yet respectful debate on any number of worldly and heavenly topics, evincing that men of a certain age can, if they listen to each other, share views without name-calling or coming to blows. Through it all, Ross, the tireless worker bee, buzzed around camp, fixing and toting and moving and repairing so that each guest, each temporary resident of the Litman Camp, experienced a blissful, worry-free stay.
As always, despite the slow fishing the last two days of our trip, when Ross announced it was time to start packing up on Wednesday morning, after the last of the eggs were eaten and the last of the morning dishes was done, the sadness of leaving came over me. My job as a district court judge takes bits and pieces of my humanity; the day-to-day grind of court eats away at one’s optimism and faith in mankind as one deals with folks at their worst, at usually the lowest point in their lives. But a few days away from the Internet, Wi-Fi, cell phones, courtrooms, and legalese cannot be understated in terms of a fishing trip’s restorative powers. I’m hoping the Sheriff and his brother invite us back again. Maybe the fish will be more cooperative. Maybe they won’t. But five days at Lake Elsie in the company of three old men, a college kid, a pizza maker, a Sheriff, a carpenter, and a neurosurgeon, with or without walleye biting, beats most everything else I’ve tried as a vacation.
The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (2013. Quercus. ISBN 9781623651312)
My friend Ron McVean, an avid reader and sometime pre-reader of my manuscripts, handed me his autographed copy of this Freeman thriller with the admonition, “I read it but didn’t get excited by it. Maybe you’ll like it.” Faint praise, eh? So with that lukewarm endorsement, I carried Ron’s hardcover version of the book with me on a recent fishing trip to Ontario. I had my own demons, my own biases to exorcise before I could give Freeman’s book a fair shake as a reviewer. To be frank, I’m not sure I was able to accomplish that task so I’ll disclose the worst of my prejudices here and you can, if you so choose, simply ignore this review.
Envy. Jealousy. Local boy reading a story written about his hometown by a stranger. They all add up to this: While I understand why authors who have no lasting connection with Duluth and the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota (Freeman, Krueger, and Sundstol) might want to choose Duluth or the Iron Range or the North Shore as a setting for a novel (it is, after all, God’s country!), I continue to be unimpressed by the depictions of my backyard by folks who are just passing through, taking notes, and penning novels based upon casual observations about where I live, where I grew up. That these same authors, strangers to the land I inhabit, receive accolades for genre fiction full of cutesy landscapes that bear only a superficial likeness to the Northland irks me. There. The disclosures have been made. Take them for what they’re worth. Read on or move on, your choice.
That having been said, I wanted to desperately like this book. I wanted to be compelled by Cat, the young prostitute’s back story of deprivation and neglect, by the investigator and chief protagonist’s, Jonathan Stride’s, inner struggles and past, and by the romantic possibilities of the juxtaposition of Stride with two former lovers (also cops) in the investigation of a string of suspicious deaths. But I couldn’t, as my friend Ron suggested, get past the implausibility of the plot, the confusion of some of the action sequences, or the lack of a main character, any character, that I could relate to or cherish. It’s not that the writing isn’t professional: it is certainly that. It isn’t that the dialogue is clunky or overwrought: Freeman can write a scene that seems credible as characters engage with each other. And it’s not that he got geographic landmarks wrong (i.e., Enger Tower doesn’t mysteriously migrate to Canal Park). It is, in my humble view, that after 420 pages of reading, I really didn’t care what happened to Cat or Jonathan or Maggie or Ken.
In addition, the various suspects in the story read like a list of stereotypes: Greedy used car salesman, devious cop, the older sister with a drug problem and a traumatic past. Additionally, there isn’t, in my view, much excitement or suspense, or suspension of disbelief at work in the arc of the story or in the character’s actions throughout the book. The book isn’t badly written; there are no major impossibilities that muck up the plot. There just wasn’t enough here to hold my interest, to compel me to stay up late into the night by the light of my headlamp at Elsie Lake Fishing Camp to finish the story.
Bookstore owners have repeatedly asked me, “Have you read Brian Freeman?” I used to answer, “No.” Now I can respond, “Yes.” And that’s about all I will say.
3 stars out of 5.
I will be participating in Author Fest at Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery in Park Rapids, MN on June 20, 2015 from 11-1:00. I’ll be signing copies of Sukulaiset: The Kindred as well as my other books. Other authors participating in the Festival include Margi Preus, Shawn Otto, William Kent Krueger, Lin Enger, and many others. The complete listing of authors attending may be found at: http://beagleandwolf.com/events.html. Folks in the area, on vacation, or just passin’ through are encourged to stop in at the Fest on 6/20 and buy a signed book from their favorite Minnesota writer. Every book sold will help ensure that a wonderful Indie bookstore remains open and accessible to Minnesotans!
I am not a saint. No man is, at least, none that I’ve met in recent memory. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of good men and women in our world, doing good work, folks that the Wizard of Oz would call “good deed doers.” But the perfect man or woman, unblemished and suited for deification? Maybe there was one such man. Perhaps he was the one who founded the religion I follow. Or maybe there were several, including a caring woman or two. Maybe they were folks who knew God intimately in their own way and time, perhaps in the deserts of the Middle East or the boiling waters of the Ganges or in the fiery flames of a pyre in war-torn medieval France. But my point is a simple one: I haven’t come across such personages lately. Oh, I know that somewhere in the billions of human beings inhabiting our Earth, there are some folks who are eligible for saintly consideration; I just haven’t had the pleasure of making their company.
Which brings me to today. Memorial Day, 2015. It’s a rainy, cold, dismal morning as I listen to Bob Dylan and the Band’s live album, Before the Flood, and try to string words into sentences that make some semblance of sense. Sometimes my writing does that, hits the mark, makes a point. Other times, it wanders a bit (as it is now) before the theme of a piece emerges and grabs hold of my creative effort. But it is indeed a horridly gray and dreary day outside, so if getting to the point takes a while, I’ll blame it on the weather.
Friday, a dozen or more Scouts from Boy Scout Troop 106 and its Venture Crew placed flags on the graves of the departed at Sunrise Memorial Park in Hermantown. It’s a ritual that our troop has been annually engaged in since my son Jack joined Scouting. Jack’s been a Scout for eleven years and, over that time span, he’s occasionally helped place flags on the graves of service men and women at Sunrise. I have not. Oh, I’ve spoken at the Proctor Memorial Day remembrance as a guest, attended a couple of other programs honoring the men and women who served our nation and are no longer with us, but I’ve never, until Friday, personally experienced placing flags on military graves. To be clear, the folks we were honoring at Sunrise were not saints. No Pope had said the pious, necessary incantations raising the departed to such illustrious status. No, the folks I honored on Friday were simple, ordinary people who, at some point in their lives (usually straight out of high school) chose to serve us in the military. Note that I didn’t write “serve their country”. To me, that time-worn phrase misses the point. Even in the deepest depths of World War and Vietnam, when the so-called universal draft was in place, not everyone called to serve did so. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the modern era: Back when President Lincoln proclaimed the necessity of the very first selective service call to save the Union, men of means were able to avoid the horrors of the battlefield by paying someone to do their duty. More recently, college deferments, elopement to Canada, proclamation of conscientious objector status, and a myriad of other exceptions have been used by young American men to avoid service during times of conflict. Simply put: Those who answered America’s call to service went in place of those who did not. Those who answered the call served in our stead. They served us. Perhaps they went because they loved their country. Perhaps they went because they didn’t like the consequences attended to not going. Perhaps they had a burning desire to be hungry, miserable, and in constant fear. Whatever the reasons, they went. For us.
And then there are those who’ve volunteered. They joined the active military, the reserves, the guard, the Coast Guard. And then, true to their oaths, they too did their duty by going to war or by serving in places that, while not torn apart by conflict, were foreign, dangerous, and a long way from northeastern Minnesota. The men and women who chose the military and the Coast Guard joined for us. By volunteering to be part of the defensive strength of our nation protecting our freedoms, our borders, our liberty and our lives, they have served us to an extent that affixing a few dozen flags to white crosses crafted by an Eagle Scout from Troop 106 can never repay or thank. They were not, these Americans who served us and came to final rest in the moist earth of Sunrise Memorial Park, saints. They were ordinary folks: our neighbors, our friends, our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters. But they served us. And for that, whether they were compelled to their service via the draft or chose to join of their own volition, we owe them more than a few moments reflection on Memorial Day.
Our son Jack is one of these ordinary folks. Jack, a high school junior and seventeen years old, recently enlisted in the United States Army National Guard. Soon, he will be off to basic training. He will travel a long way from Fredenberg, Minnesota and join other young men and women who’ve chosen to serve us. While those of us in northeastern Minnesota enjoy a summer of fishing and kayaking and hiking and biking, Jack and his fellow enlistees will be enjoying the sultry heat and humidity of Fort Jackson, S.C. learning to be solidiers. I pray for him, as I prayed for the departed last Friday when I placed flags on crosses. I pray that we treasure their service to us and that we remember their sacrifices every day we enjoy our freedom and our liberty. Though those who have served and who are now serving are not saints, we owe them at least that much.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle version. ISBN 978-0312429980)
Let’s be honest. I will never write a book that makes it to No. 3 on the Amazon sales list. Hilary Mantel’s tome about the English politico and adviser (Thomas Cromwell) to Henry VIII during England’s split from the Vatican is there now and likely was No. 1 on the list at some point. That disclosure having been made, I am uncertain, other than the prurient interest such historical fiction engenders (what with all the beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake and rampant coupling), why the book is such a hit (it’s now a mini-series on PBS!). Not that the story, as gruesome and titillating as written, isn’t worthy of a read. It is. But, as other critics have noted, this series about Cromwell is more Mantel’s attempt, as a protestor against Roman Catholicism, to attack Thomas More’s (he of A Man for All Seasons fame) heroic legacy, a legacy that has left Cromwell, at least in popular fiction and the public eye, as a wretched, power hungry bundle of evil corruption, than to a retelling of the tragedies of Henry’s rule with objectivity. As with many historical figures of power, neither More nor Cromwell is all saint or all sinner, though Mantel’s attempt to soften the historic Cromwell is at least somewhat successful.
I found the author’s use of the third person subjective case (“He” instead of “Thomas” or “Cromwell”) throughout the tale an odd choice for the genre. Most historical fiction is written in the third person omniscient where the narrators are described by name, not pronoun. Not so in this work. It may seem a minor point but I found the author’s choice in this regard an odd one. In addition, the plot and action are confusing and difficult to follow, though the historic details are never in doubt, making this at times, a very difficult, though well described, tale to follow.
And, as I have said in past reviews of other novels that rely solely upon the basest of human experience to propel their plots forward (e.g., No Country for Old Men), a novel that completely avoids redemption and light for the sake of story, no matter how serious the subject matter, is half a story at best.
Still, like any witness to a train wreck (I knew what grisly ends awaited Sir Thomas, Queen Ann, and even the anti-hero, Mr. Cromwell but I kept on reading despite that insight) I had little difficulty finishing this book. It was not so badly written or constructed to the point where I stopped caring (the situation I find myself in having trudged through most of James Joyce’s Ulysses). Despite the above-noted critique, and some questions as to the author’s use of historical fiction as a platform to pontificate against the modern Roman Catholic Church, I will likely read the sequels. Even critics can’t avoid being curious when heads are about to be lopped off and maidens are being led to the stake…
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg (1954. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0873513203)
This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.
Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.
The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.
The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.
As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.
Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.
A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”
4 and ½ stars out of 5.
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1951. Simon and Schuster. Translated by Gustaf Lannestock. ISBN 978-0873513197)
There is a lot of sex in this book. I mean it. For a novel published during the more sedate and less titillating 1950s, The Emigrants references the act of lovemaking, coitus, or, if you prefer, samlag (Swedish) innumerable times throughout the novel’s 366 pages. Now, to be clear, Moberg doesn’t toss graphic descriptions of carnal knowledge onto the printed page. Rather, as a true gentleman, the author of this initial installment in an emigration/immigration trilogy depicting the lives of a schooner full of Swedes fleeing poverty, religious persecution, and landless futures carefully alludes to sex throughout the story, never really painting a word picture of the mechanics of such physical connections. Some of the references to sexuality are humorous. A graphic description of the permanently aroused state of a dead Lutheran pastor’s manhood, which befuddles his survivors as they prepare his body for the man’s funeral, comes to mind. Another tidbits of carnality include glimpses of the sexual prowess of one the great prostitutes depicted in literature, Ulrika of Västergöhl. None of the passages depicting Man’s basest desires are offensive. But they are indeed prevalent, sprinkled by the author throughout the narrative like naughty exclamation points.
But this isn’t a story about sexual repression in mid-19th century or even mid-20th century Sweden. It is, in the end, the story of Karl Oscar Nilsson, his wife Kristina Johnsdotter, and their young children who, as the inherited family farm of Korpamoen sinks deeper and deeper into debt, leave their Swedish homeland for America. The writing in the first one-third of the novel, the section that depicts all the adversity and travails that afflict the young couple (and the other characters, including Ulrika) is crisp, descriptive, and spot-on. Moberg’s ability to weave history, geography, and character together to create believable fiction is well served in the early portion of this tale. The author also adroitly captures the fear, trepidation, and hope that must have been experienced by uneducated emigrants about to embark on a three-month voyage across a vast boiling pot of water, bound for a land that they had only the vaguest of notions about. The tension between tradition, such as Karl Oscar revealing his plan to sell the family farm to strangers, uprooting his young family, and leaving his ailing mother and father behind; Karl Oscar’s younger brother Robert deserting his laboring job, employment little better than slavery, without notice to join Karl and Kristina on their voyage; Kristina’s uncle, Daniel Andreasson, a religious zealot in danger of a prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without the blessings of the state church; is palpable and real during the first section of the novel. Based upon the beginning of The Emigrants, I had high hopes that Moberg’s writing would continue to be clever, commanding, and intriguing throughout the remainder of the novel.
The remainder of the book depicts the voyage of the brig Charlotta, a sailing vessel 124 feet long, packed with 15 crewmembers, and carrying a contingent of 78 emigrant passengers from Sweden, including Karl Oscar and Kristina. It isn’t that craft deserted Moberg during the last two-thirds of the story: It is that, in an effort to render an authentic depiction of the harrowing passage experienced by many immigrants to America during the 19th century, the author spares no detail regarding the illnesses, agony, boredom, frustration, and fear experienced below the decks of the Charlotta. What the reader is left with is nearly two hundred pages of well-written narration and dialogue limited in geographic scope to the forty-pace by eight-pace deck of the brig. Moberg’s descriptive powers are adept. His word choice is concise. He instills emotive fire in his writing. And yet, in the end, unlike the middle passage scene from Roots, the best depiction of a similar oceanic transit in all of literature, Moberg’s attempt to make the reader feel and care about the emigrants and their suffering falters. Why? Scene after scene of billowed sails, gray seas and skies, storms, sickness, and death may well mimic the reality of what the emigrants experienced. But such repetitive prose, even when well written, becomes, and became in this case, redundant. In a nutshell, Moberg didn’t provide enough variety in the last two-thirds of this novel to keep up the heady pace, the internal steam of narrative and dialogue that made the first portion of this book so compelling.
Despite the criticisms leveled above, The Emigrants has value for anyone interested in understanding the motivations and desires of Scandinavians who immigrated to North America during the last half of the 19th century. While the sections portraying the passage of the brig Charlotta across the Atlantic may be a tad overdone, the overall impact of the characters and their struggles remains powerful enough to label Moberg’s initial offering in the trilogy a “good read”.
4 stars out of 5
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
Tuesday. April 21st. Noon. Cloquet Library. Munger and Grover. Two Denfeld kids talking writing and The Dance Boots. One Book, One Community. Free and open to the public with signed copies of the book available for purchase. Still on the fence? Read my review of the book at: http://cloquetriverpress.com/wordpress/…. You won’t find a better way to spend an hour of your time.