Minnesotans will find their own histories in ‘Scandinavian Legacy’

The late poet and essayist Bill Holm elevated the elements of everyday life in Minnesota to the sublime. Some of his published collections include “The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth” and “Boxelder Bug Variations.” (file photo)
The late poet and essayist Bill Holm elevated the elements of everyday life in Minnesota to the sublime. Some of his published collections include “The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth” and “Boxelder Bug Variations.” (file photo)
A sensation when it originally debuted in 1925, the experiences recounted in “Giants of the Earth” can be felt as keenly today as a blizzard in the northern forest or the scorching sun on a southern wheat field. (submitted photo)
A sensation when it originally debuted in 1925, the experiences recounted in “Giants of the Earth” can be felt as keenly today as a blizzard in the northern forest or the scorching sun on a southern wheat field. (submitted photo)

In “Lake Wobegon Days,” Garrison Keillor depicts the irony of Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and their Finnish and Icelandic cousins leaving farms in their homelands for Minnesota:

“Our ancestors chose the place, tired from their long journey, sad for having left the motherland behind, and this place reminded them of there, so they settled here, forgetting that they had left there because the land wasn’t so good. So the new life turned out to be a lot like the old, except the winters are worse.”

The hard truths of the struggles to farm an unbroken land, the longing for home and the wry, understated humor that let 1800s immigrants make light of their plight shine through in the speaker series “Sons and Daughters of the Northern Lights: The Scandinavian Legacy in Minnesota.”

Funded by a Minnesota Legacy grant and held at the Roseville branch of the Ramsey County Libraries, 2180 Hamline Ave. N., the series highlights:

• “Giants in the Earth,” Tuesday, May 5 at 12:30 p.m.
Author Ole Edvart Rolvaag published this first entry in a trilogy of novels in Norwegian in 1924, but it quickly jumped the Atlantic and was translated in English for a rapt U.S. audience in 1925.
Drawing from his own experiences as a homesteader as well as the recollections of other Norwegian immigrants, Rolvaag depicts early settlers’ struggles to survive savage winters, scorching summers and the homesickness and hunger.
The novel isn’t a sod-house how-to; Rolvaag also explores the timeless conflicts faced by immigrants: how best to fit into new cultures without losing their heritage and how to hang onto the next generation, as it grows away from family and tradition.

• Comedy and correspondence, Tuesday, May 12, at 12:30 p.m.
It’s not all Ole and Lena jokes; Scandinavian humor could be unexpectedly adroit and often self-deprecating and pragmatic.
Through their own letters to one another and to loved ones in Europe, early Minnesotans tell about their experiences in the woods and on the prairie, lightening the missives with comic touches as they go. Whatever the catastrophe that befell them—locusts, drought, blizzard—settlers tried to see “the funny side” as they picked themselves back up again.
Those who attend the reading are invited to share stories of their own immigrant ancestors—wherever they my have come from.

• Tuesday, May 19, at 12:30 p.m., the presentation will focus on the poetry, essays and novels of Minnesota writers Robert Bly and the late Bill Holm; essayist and novelist Bart Sutter will speak at the event. Each brings a unique perspective on the people and culture of the state, from Holm’s wide-horizon descriptions of southern Minnesota farmland to Sutter’s depiction of the Arrowhead region, or, as he puts it, “life at the top of the map.”
Audience members will also enjoy some of the music Scandinavians brought with them.

The series is presented by Steve Benson, former director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Center, and friends, and is co-sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Minnesota.

—Holly Wenzel

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