Some time ago I read Ole Rolvaag’s 1920s immigrant classic, Giants in the Earth, and noticed how homesick one of the main characters became in her new life in the Dakota territory. Beret longed for family and the old country of Norway, so much so that imagined herself buried in the old chest that had traveled with her. She ached for her old home so greatly that she almost went crazy. By way of contrast, her husband Per saw his new life as a great opportunity and could hardly wait for each new day to begin.
I was thinking that same tension of old memories and exciting dreams was typical among (Norwegian) immigrants when I remembered what Clara had written about her grandmother Maria Thorsen Estensen who had emigrated in America’s centennial year: “Aunt Thea … remembered Maria saying that if she had known how hard life was in America, she never would have left Norway” (Homestead, 15). I’m not surprised by Maria’s confession: immigrant life was tough.
The hard life apparently wasn’t Maria’s only reason for longing. Clara writes in the same paragraph, “Maria had a romance in Norway. She was from a poor family and her beau, Otto Skarseth, was from a wealthy family. His parents wanted him to forget about Maria, so Maria came to America. While attending the Ladies Aid in Pigeon Falls, WI (after Bertinus had died), she met a Skarseth woman … [whom she asked] about Otto. The woman have her his address in Norway and Maria wrote to him with the help of her daughter Thea. Otto [whose wife had died] wrote back to her and said they would meet in heaven. They were so happy to hear from each other …. Aunt Thea remembers her mother Maria saying that if she had been younger, she would have gone back to Norway again.”
In contrast to other America writers, Ole Rolvaag’s writing was serious about the losses immigrants experienced when they came to America, a reality not changed by opportunity and success. In our own family, Maria’s story is another reminder of that truth.