She follows the waters
Astrid Tollefsen documents the voices from the final Norwegian emigration
By Christy Olsen Field
Norwegian American Weekly
The ocean has been central to Norwegian-American relations since day one. To many, it was merely a transportation route – it both separated and divided. To those Norwegians, especially those from Karmøy who settled in the New Bedford, Mass., area, saw it as a means of livelihood, and often went back and between their two homelands.
“Following the Waters” is the oral history and personal chronicle of 20th century Norwegian emigrant fishermen and their families. Known as pendlers (commuters), their seafaring lifestyles, enhanced by they traditional Norwegian skills and culture, were defined by courage daring and hard work. Author Astrid Tollefsen is the daughter of a Norwegian fisherman emigrant, who died at sea when Astrid was less than two years old. Her life was shaped by the Norwegians in the fishing industry of New Bedford, Mass., and those who continued to Seattle, Wash., and Alaska for their fishing careers. In her search for her Norwegian identity, Tollefsen weaves together the history of Norwegian emigration and personal stories to create a rich tapestry of the Norwegian-American story.
“I have always had an interest in how people live, but specifically the Norwegians: my father’s people. One evening at dinner, an old friend was talking to me about his life and said, ‘When I was out there fighting the waters…’ and told some wonderful stories.
“I said immediately, ‘That would make a great title for a book about New Bedford Norwegian fishermen.’ I thought about it all night and by morning was writing a questionnaire. I called a few people and they thought it was silly. There was nothing to tell, they said, and would not be interviewed. It was an uphill battle to get interviews from the men – the women were only too glad to talk…and talk. There were many stories and I was determined. The more I talked to them, the more I saw myself. I was like them, no doubt, in their determination and stubbornness,” says Tollefsen.
Beginning her research in 1995, Tollefsen recorded interviews and gathered materials from a wide variety of sources. In 2000, she went to Stockholm and stayed with her son, who was working on his Ph.D. in engineering. The 512-page book was released in New Bedford in November 2004, and in Norway in May 2005.
“Following the Waters” is not written chronologically, but rather as a set of individual, stand-alone sections. Tollefsen incorporates narratives from personal interviews with historical facts, giving the book a conversational tone. Each chapter features a sub-chapter called “Legacy & Folklore,” focusing on cultural and historical aspects of Norway, from “The Crosscurrents of an American-Norwegian Marriage” to “Viking Rules for Living.”
“Following the Waters” is full of neighborhood stories, carefully documenting the day-to-day lives of these brave Norwegian emigrants and the lives they built in the United States. She writes about the Norwegian newspapers (specifically the Brooklyn-based Nordisk Tidene, a predecessor to the Norwegian American Weekly), favorite food, churches, local folklore, and other aspects of the Norwegian-American community.
When asked about why it was so important to document these emigrant stories, Tollefsen replied, “Emigration is not done lightly. It is done because people cannot earn a living in their country and have to leave. It disrupts and divides families and there is loss in some cases. Norway was a very poor country and could not sustain its population. Today it is one of the richest in the world due to oil. This [book documents] the final Norwegian emigration. Emigration now is coming into Norway… not out.”
“Following the Waters” is a beautiful book. From the design to the thoughtful structure of the content, “Following the Waters” paints a colorful portrait of the Norwegian-American experience.
“Following the Waters” is available for purchase at select bookstores in New England, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New York, the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, Wash., and online at www.amazon.com and www.ebay.com. For an autographed copy, contact Astrid at astrid2000 @ earthlink.net or phone (508) 362-4272. Price: $39.90 + 5.90 S&H. ISBN: 0-9746515-5-9.
This article was originally published in the Oct. 29, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.