Education in Norway—a magical experience

Crime Corner brought to you by Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt’s Purdue study group visited the gravesite of Bergen’s mysterious Isdal Woman in 2019. Author Gunnar Staalesen is second to the far right.

My most wonderful education experience came appropriately near the end of my 50-year-plus teaching career. And since it occurred in Norway, that experience could not have suited this column better.

In 2017, I received a Fulbright award to teach at the University of Bergen, Norway, to follow my research interests regarding Norwegian Noir. One of my assignments was to teach a class on American Noir in a Norwegian classroom—for me, a dream assignment. I had 34 students—all of them, as it turned out, absolutely wonderful. I was told early on that since attendance is not required at the University of Bergen I should not feel miffed if the students were frequently absent. Anything but! Those 34 were there in full force for every class, and they read their assignments and were always ready to discuss.

It is always magical to share texts as epic as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with classes anywhere, but in this classroom a special kind of magic occurred—thanks to the passion for the material those students brought. When the aforementioned The Long Goodbye even referenced a Norwegian locale, one of my students ecstatically told us: “That’s my HOME!!”  Magical? It was for her, and it certainly was for me.

Professor Jerry Holt poses in front of “Varg Veum’s office” in Bergen, Norway, where he taught crime fiction as a Fulbright award recipient from 2017 to 2019.

Of the many memorable days in that class, two stand out. The first came because I had the great good fortune to acquire the friendship of Bergen’s Gunnar Staalesen, whose series character Varg Veum is a Norwegian national treasure, as well he should be. Just before I taught my first Noir class at the university, Gunnar and I had met at the then Varg Veum bar, down by the harbor, right where Varg’s own office is located in the books. I was to meet Gunnar there, and, appropriate to Noir, the fog was heavy that evening. My first sight of the legendary Staalesen occurred when he emerged on the street from the dense fog, looking for all the world like Varg Veum himself.

With Gunnar, I tasted my first aquavit, and he agreed to appear in my class. It was an unforgettable session, as Gunnar detailed his own debt to Raymond Chandler. During that session, I recalled—and even told—the famous story from America in the 1950s where a young British woman comes to Los Angeles for the first time and is able to direct her cabdriver effortlessly to her destination. Amazed, the cabdriver asks how she, on her first trip, is able to do that. “Well you see,” the young lady responds, “I have read the works of Raymond Chandler.” At that moment, I happened to look out the windows of our classroom and see jutting before me that unmistakable spire of St. John’s Church, right beside the university campus. And I realized that I knew it well before I had even seen it because it is referenced in the Varg Veum novels.

Bestselling American crime fiction author Sara Paretsky visits the Noir class at the University of Bergen via Skype.

The other most memorable class was the one where I Skyped in the bestselling American author Sara Paretsky. She is the author of the long-running V.I. Warshawski novels, set in Chicago. V.I. is a tough-talking private investigator, and the students absolutely loved her. I know I’m in danger of overusing the word, but class time with Sara was also magical: she was utterly attuned to the students, and they, as usual, had read closely. Paretsky was thrilled when one student pointed out a minor error in her novel Blacklist, one that only the closest of readers would have caught. Most of the students were conversing for the first time with a famous author at that moment, and they certainly rose to the occasion.

On the last day of the class, students brought me flowers and candy—a tradition we don’t have in the United States. I was overwhelmed. I continue to correspond and share life experiences with a number of those students, and it is a privilege I would not trade.

There is more—a lot more. Upon my return to the United States, Purdue Northwest, my home university, offered me the chance to teach a Norwegian Noir course right there in Hammond, Ind. This was a graduate-level course, and, as you would imagine, the students here were top notch as well. Thanks again to the miracle of Skype, the American students were able to meet and converse with Gunnar Staalesen, Trude Teige, and—oh, the memories—several students from the University of Bergen. That one I just sat back and let happen. It really was the best moment of my teaching life to watch those students interact and enjoy each other’s cultures.

And then, at Christmas of 2019—just before the pandemic shut down the world—I took a group of American students to Bergen, where we were met by Gunnar and the wonderful Ellen Staalesen, and where we ultimately wound up interviewing Alex Dahl and—yes—Karin Fossum. Both could not have been more generous with their time and their comments. In the case of Fossum, the students were thrilled when she confirmed a submerged plot twist for them in her novel The Whisperer. On another day, the ever-resourceful Gunnar took us to the site of the real-life Isdal Woman’s death, and then to see her hidden grave (the corpse of this mysterious woman remains unidentified to this day). Students called our trip the best educational experience of their lives.

Jerry Holt’s former student Gerd Prestegard is now living and teaching at the top of the world in Norway’s’Sámi reindeer country.

Lastly, I have always felt that teaching is the best of careers, because it is the one in which we, the teachers, get to see—in the future successes of our students—our best dreams come true. Thus, imagine how happy I am to report that one of the very best of my students from Bergen, Gerd Sivertsen Prestegard, is now living and teaching at the top of the world in Sámi reindeer country, where the people number 70,000 and the reindeer more like 10,000. This is, of course, a dramatic change from living in Bergen, but Gerd went where she was needed, and there, she has prospered. Yes, of course, I loved teaching before I arrived in Bergen—but there I felt reborn with new purpose in the classroom. Education in Norway—a magical experience indeed!

All photos courtesy of Jerry Holt

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.