Growing up Norwegian in New York City
What was it like growing up Norwegian in New York City? Jan Carol Simonsen offers a snapshot, a curated, well thought out scrapbook of what it was like growing up as a Norwegian in a specific place —the area of Bay Ridge Brooklyn in a specific time—in the 1950s and 1960s—in her recently published book, Brooklyn Girl: Growing Up Norwegian in New York City.
Simonsen’s book is written somewhat chronologically from the viewpoint of the main character, Solveig, as she comes of age. But I say somewhat, as time is not entirely fixed. The author allows her connections to people and places to lead the story, jumping by theme or fact or opinion. It is not disjointed but very conversational and realistic, mimicking how our brains work—not in straight lines, but with much meandering and detours, connecting patterns or contradictions.
It is very reminiscent of how children gather information. Much of what Solveig learns (and we learn through her) comes from the adult conversations she is privy to by eavesdropping or catching snippets of information, with little context or overheard sarcastic judgments said under someone’s breath.
If you grew up in Brooklyn after the time Simonsen depicts, as I did, the past shimmers. You are always looking back at the “Golden Age,” which you were too young to experience in its entirety. I compare it to chasing after a circus parade: you are trying to keep up to catch up to what came before you, but it is always out of reach.
This makes these recollections very nostalgic and romantic, as you look back on a time when you could take the ferry to Staten Island before the Verrazzano Bridge had torn apart the community, creating a literal gaping hole, that destroyed homes and displaced neighbors. It was a time when the ice and vegetable man came by horse, and the frugal Norwegian mother could see an additional benefit to this mode of transportation, as the horses left behind a gift for her garden.
Comical memories are many, too, often tied to being financially prudent. They will delight you like papa’s stipulations about limiting the use of electricity, the telephone, and toilet paper, but you will have to read the book for yourself to uncover this calamity.
The Norwegian experience
Trying to master the language is essential. Even though Solveig was born in the United States, Norwegian is her primary language for the first years of her life. I remember a Norwegian immigrant telling me how he and others would speak “Nor-English,” a combination of both languages, when he came to New York.
And there is the phenomenon of sprinkling Norwegian words into English conversation in a matter-of-fact way. When I heard one character say “grisunge,” I was immediately transported to my farmor’s Brooklyn kitchen, as she commented on her grandchildren’s dirty faces.
The other commonality revolves around food: when, where, how, and what Norwegians prepare, consume, and share. Nourishment is core to everyday life and holidays, especially Christmas. Naturally, language and food are common touchstones for all emigrants; they just prefer different flavors, so this story has universal appeal.
Other commonalities have to do with much more frightening events: Norway’s Nazi occupation and the carnage Norwegian merchant marines suffered (luckily their maritime skills provided employment along the Brooklyn waterfront). And a surprise to me was the inclusion of a newly migrated relative, whose child is a Lebonsborn, the offspring of a Norwegian woman and a father who was an occupying German soldier. These children and their mothers were ostracized and humiliated in Norway, so, New York served as a refuge.
These events are usually mentioned in whispers and can include hidden dangers from things unseen, like the polio scare. But, the most sinister dangers can be found right under your roof, like the “evil presence” that washes over Solveig. Later, the author clarified: “Life is not all goodness and light. The ‘evil presence’ alludes to the boyfriend of the babysitting cousin whose character comes to light in several chapters.”
Solveig is living through a very interesting time with juxtaposed realities, including the fear of communism and the pelvis of Elvis. Society was questioning solidified norms, such as what religion was superior and who one should marry. But New York is a very diverse place, even in the predominantly Norwegian section of Bay Ridge, so how could someone growing up then not question their religion’s singularity if they had Catholic and Jewish friends, or even friends who attend another Protestant denomination? Mixed marriages were also frowned upon, but Solveig knows her beloved uncle through marriage was a German immigrant to Norway and later discovers that his mother was Jewish.
Simonsen has stated, “My goal in writing this book was to capture the essence of the Norwegian culture in New York at a unique time. Solveig’s own experiences in Brooklyn can never be duplicated. As she comes of age, the community changes dramatically: immigration policies change and thus the influx of Norwegian immigrants lessens; the landscape of Bay Ridge itself alters dramatically; and political events dramatically impact the future of the American way of life.”
Simonsen has done an excellent job, giving us an accessible story that offers experiences all immigrants share, as well as experiences specific to those who came from Norway to the urbanism of Bay Ridge. It balances out the laughter, shock, and pain that life delivers to all of us, and it allows you to see why Norwegian Bay Ridge has had such a hold on Norwegians both in the United States and in Norway, where many towns hold on tightly to the American dream that beckoned so many of their ancestors, whether for a few years or a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.