On the Road, Norwegian Style

Book review: Rett Vest, Cape Cod til Big Sur

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Rett Vest

Photo: Forlaget Oktober
The book’s cover photo by author Morten A. Strøksnes is of half-buried upturned car near Alliance, Nebraska.

In the spring of 2008, Norwegian author Morten A. Strøksnes drove across the continental USA, tasked with “researching America and its values in a time of moral and economic crisis, with costly wars on many fronts, held in low esteem in the world, and suffering bitter internal conflicts.” The result is the story told in Rett Vest (Straight West), subtitled Cape Cod til (to) Big Sur, a travelogue of contemporary America.

The story begins with a prologue on Bowling Green, the oldest public park in New York City, in lower Manhattan at the southern end of Broadway, the habitat that begot American culture, the turf tramped by American literary greats who spoke the message of the country, from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac to Bob Dylan. From that starting point, he launches his journey from Penn Station, on an Amtrak passenger train bound for Boston. There he picks up a rental car to cross the continent, a fiery red Chevrolet Impala, the handling of which he likens to that of a German-made Leopard battle tank that he once drove while on military duty in Finnmark in the 1980s.

From there he drives to Cape Cod, through a landscape illuminated in Edward Hopper subjects reminiscent of those he’s seen in the Vesterålen islands of the Norwegian North. In Provincetown he reflects upon a Norwegian connection in American history. In 1608, Christopher Jones, the owner and captain of the Mayflower, first sailed it over the North Sea to Trondheim. On the return voyage, the Mayflower encountered a winter storm so violent that Captain Jones jettisoned the cargo to save her, a loss that caused him to swear off sailing to Norway. So he put the ship up for hire to sail elsewhere. In 1620 the English Pilgrims filled it to cross the Atlantic to their life in the New World. One can only speculate what history might have been had Captain Jones not experienced a disastrous return voyage from Trondheim.

Morten A. Strøksnes

Photo: Forlaget Oktober
Author Morten A. Strøksnes.

Back in Boston, author Strøksnes reflects on the ride of Paul Revere that inspired the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and in so doing notices that American history is more alive for Americans than Norwegian history is for Norwegians. Boston, he concludes, is America’s Athens. He then visits Lowell, Mass., Jack Kerouac’s hometown, and throughout the book frequently quotes Kerouac. Later, he visits Concord, for a similar reason, to visit Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. With an affinity for Thoreau’s philosophy, he quotes an entry in Thoreau’s diary dated Nov. 11, 1851, “Today you write a chapter on the advantages of traveling, and tomorrow you may write a chapter on the advantages of not traveling.”

Farther on, in New York state, he visits Adirondack Park, part state park and part forest preserve, and Saranac Lake, site of the first tuberculosis sanatorium. As the Adirondacks flatten out westward, he drives through a hamlet named Town of Norway, listens to National Public Radio, and begins to appreciate the relevance of Gertrude Stein’s remark that “In the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

Upon driving into Ohio, he realizes that what’s now called the Midwest is about as far as French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled before writing Democracy in America, published in 1835 and now regarded as one of the great books about the country. Farther on, in Michigan, he visits Detroit and devotes a chapter (West 7) to it in the book, because it was the source of the two leading “isms” of the 20th century, namely Fordism, the organized system of mass production and Motorism, the American addiction to driving cars.

Traveling westward, he gains firsthand appreciation of the Interstate Highway System, the largest infrastructure project in world history, and an understanding of the impact on communities of Wal-Mart, the retailing giant that were it a country would be China’s largest trading partner.

In Iowa, he meets an Apache Indian named Chris, who laments the decline of upward mobility in America (documented in “Opportunity of social mobility great in Scandinavia,” The Norwegian American, Aug. 28, 2015: www.norwegianamerican.com/opinion/opportunity-of-social-mobility-great-in-scandinavia). In Kansas, he stops at the modest prairie home of Dr. Brewster M. Higley, who in 1872 published a poem that became the folk song “Home on the Range” as well as the state song of Kansas and the unofficial anthem of the American West. In Nebraska, he notices that men in small towns wear Stetson hats, not caps. In South Dakota, he visits the site of the Battle of Wounded Knee and appreciates the unjust agony of it that persists to this day.

In Salt Lake City, he admires the masterly urban planning, extraordinary for a city built in the 19th century. As a city, Boise, Idaho, reminds him of Bergen in Norway, despite the difference of its surrounding topography.

Through Death Valley he stops at Furnace Creek, the location of the highest temperature recorded in the Western Hemisphere, just so he could experience it. On the West Coast, he visits San Francisco, Big Sur, and Los Angeles, reflecting along the way that America is a fantastically successful experiment, though now troubled. That said, America is about creativity and resources and continues to lead the world in production of ideas and capabilities. And California leads in America. He reads from a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he has carried and read since buying it in the Strand Bookstore in New York City:

Look off the shores of my Western sea—the circle almost circled…
Now I face home again, very pleas’d and joyous,
(But where is what I started for so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound?)

Indeed, Rett Vest is a story that could be as compelling in English as it is in Norwegian. Strøksnes has already demonstrated proven appeal in English. His 2017 publication, Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark From a tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean has been a best seller, not least because, like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the catching of a big fish is the least important part of its story line. Hopefully, some reader of this newspaper will attempt a translation and see it through to publication.

The book: Rett Vest, Cape Cod til Big Sur, Oslo, 2009, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Arena factual prose series, 232 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-82-05-39043-0 (Nynorsk), NOK 399, available from Norwegian online booksellers Adlibris, Akademika, Haugenbok, Norli, and Tanum.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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