Book review: All that I hold dear
Christine Foster Meloni
How lucky we are when we find links to our immigrant past! And how very special it is to find something material that actually belonged to someone on our family tree! Ruth Kolbjornsen Nybro found a true treasure in the bottom of her Grandmother Helga Hansen’s trunk: five small black diaries with entries in Norwegian neatly entered almost daily in the early years of the 20th century.
Nybro had known her grandmother, but she didn’t discover the diaries until several years after her death. Recognizing their value, she translated them into English and published them under the title All that I hold Dear: A Young Immigrant in New York City, 1911-1916. It is a firsthand account of a young Norwegian woman working as a live-in maid for wealthy families.
In truth, the diaries themselves are not particularly interesting; Helga’s days as a maid are quite monotonous. She cleans and cooks and sews and writes letters, day in and day out. She goes out to meet her Norwegian relatives when she has free time. She rarely reflects on her experiences. We don’t really get to know her as a person although we know that she works hard, values her family, and tries to be a good Christian woman.
But her diaries give us insight into the life of a young Norwegian woman who comes to New York, finds work, and makes a life for herself. We feel her sadness at being so far from her parents and younger siblings. We realize the importance of the church to her. We also learn the strength of her ties to her Norwegian relations and the Norwegian population in New York at this time.
Nybro is to be commended for translating these diaries and making them available to scholars and to anyone interested in urban immigrant life. Much more is known about the Norwegian immigrants who settled in the Midwest and the Northwest. This book provides us with an additional view of the immigrant experience.
Nybro is considering another edition that would go beyond the diaries themselves to include not only more personal information about Helga and her family but also more contextual information about New York and the Norwegian immigrants.
Hansen, Helga (Ed. & Trans. Nybro, Ruth Kolbjornsen). (2015). All that I hold Dear: A Young Immigrant in New York City, 1911-1916.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.