Book review: Hard times, easy read
Reading Nothing to Do but Stay is a gift you give yourself. In a charming and uplifting style, author Carrie Young recalls the courage of her Norwegian mother, pioneer Carrine Gafkjen Berg, who could stand beside her husband and “beat off a prairie fire with wet rugs” and “climb a seventy-foot windmill tower to bring down a terrified child.”
Carrine Gafkjen, born in the Hallingdal Valley in Norway, came with her parents to a farm in southern Minnesota in the 1880s. Taken out of school to help on the family farm, Carrine then worked as cook in Minneapolis for 10 years.
In 1904, at age 25, she had saved enough money to buy her own land. Carrine rode the train to the frontier town of Williston, North Dakota. Driving 30 miles northwest in a rented buckboard, she staked her claim for 160 acres of rich farmland.
Young is particularly proud of her mother’s ability to plan and save. She writes that during the winter Carrine worked for a wealthy farm family and in the summer she went back to farm her own land. After five years, she had set aside enough money to purchase another 160 acres.
Carrine continued to cook for the threshing crews. On an ordinary day in the field, above the whir of the machines, Carrine heard something that changed her life. It was the voice of Sever Berg, one of the farm workers. Young writes that when her mother recognized “the familiar Halling accent and learned his parents had grown up in the same county in Norway as her own,” she felt they were destined to meet. Carrine Gafkjen married Sever Berg in 1912.
Now, Young—the youngest of six children born in nine years—switches her focus to tell the story of her parents’ struggle to educate their family during the Dust Bowl and Depression years.
Getting the children to the one room schoolhouse, three miles from the farm, was a challenge, especially in the winter. When the snows started after Thanksgiving, Carrine and Sever sent the children to school with suitcases packed with blankets and enough food to last a week or more.
On weekends, Sever drove the team of horses through the snow—the snow was too deep for the car—and brought supplies and surprises. While many adults in this Norwegian community were reading the Norwegian-language newspaper, Den Decorah Posten, published in Iowa, Sever brought copies of the Minneapolis Journal so his children could read the comics.
But he did not take the children home. Young recalls that all winter her father’s ears were frostbitten and his voice was rough and raw from yelling at the horses.
The first night that they slept in the school, the children were terrified by the strange noises outside and the shifting of the schoolhouse on its foundation. They finally realized that herds of wild ponies were huddling against the school building at night to shelter from the winter winds.
An easy read of 117 pages, Nothing to Do but Stay is full of positive and inspiring stories of Norwegian families loving and encouraging one another.
At one farm or another, the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas were lavish feasts. They started at noon and ended at midnight. After the mid-day meal, the men returned to their own farms to milk the cows or tend the livestock, then came back to the party. With everyone gathered at the big tables before midnight, there was another home-cooked meal with cakes and pies and second-go-rounds of cherished traditional dishes.
Then the children would be collected “from various parts of the house” and “bundled into winter coats and stocking caps” for the “cold moonlight ride home across the prairies.”
The author saves one of her most vivid memories for the last: “When we were driving north, ahead of us, low in the sky, were luminous lights that glowed for a moment…then faded…as if a great hand were turning them up and down.”
Because of the terrain, the homesteaders in this part of North Dakota were often treated to a spectacular aurora borealis that reminded them of Norway. Suddenly, her father shouts, “Wake up, children. Northern lights.” Proudly, he boasts, “We don’t have to go to the old country to see fireworks.”
Nothing To Do But Stay, by Carrie Young, was published by the University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Linda Warren has worked as a writer and producer for NBC and ABC affilates. She is a member of Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Her screenplay The National Museum of Driftwood won the gold Remi at WorldFest-Houston in 2014. She has a masters in Journalism from American University in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.