Finding home: New book personalizes early immigration
Christy Olsen Field
What were the hardships that impelled Scandinavians to make their daring and difficult migration in the 1880s? Who helped them to survive and adapt? As the immigrants’ children grew up American, what new attitudes and skills did they acquire, and what valuable traditions did they leave behind?
These questions piqued the curiosity of author Gloria Koll, and inspired her to explore the answers in her new novel “Skipping Stones: A Story of Finding Home.”
The book follows the lives of two immigrants: Kari from Norway and Gustav from Sweden. The novel spans several decades, beginning in the 1880s through World War II, as Kari, Gustav, and their respective families build lives in their new homeland.
Koll drew inspiration for the plot and characters from her own family history.
“My paternal grandmother, Karen Bjørnarheim, came from a farm in Brem, Nordfjord, Norway, and my paternal grandfather, Fredrick Reinertson, came from Bergen, Norway. My maternal grandparents, Selma Nelson and Carl Carlson, came from Småland, Sweden,” said Koll. They left their homelands to make a new life in the Great Plains near Bristol, S.D., which today numbers around 350 people.
The narrative for “Skipping Stones” is structured as a series of vignettes, which gave Koll creative freedom to explore the emotional side of the characters and their experiences while staying true to historical events, such as economic hardship, influenza, the World Wars, and more.
“My dad was a wonderful storyteller, and I wrote down some of his stories to preserve them… I developed some of these memories into short stories for my writing group, and they became early chapters for the book,” continued Koll. “In the story, Kari’s life was focused on their caring, loving family, and Gustav was much more focused on providing economic stability… I learned that you have to be open and take the best lessons learned from each side.”
Koll has first-hand experience with the immigrant experience from her years as an ESL teacher on Whidbey Island in Washington state. She taught English as a second language to immigrants from Vietnam, Taiwan, and other countries, and saw the economic sacrifices made by the first generation so the second generation could succeed.
“Through researching and writing this book, I learned that the immigrant experience is counter to the American Dream of achieving success through independence. It turns out that people relied a lot on each other for survival… The word that comes to mind is nok, enough in Norwegian. People had enough, and they shared what they could,” she said.
Ties to Koll’s Norwegian roots remain strong. Koll and her husband Bill have visited Norway several times, and Norwegian relatives have visited their family in the U.S. A few of these relatives were invaluable in checking historical accuracy for “Skipping Stones.” Koll wove nynorsk words from 1885 into the novel, the same time that protagonist Kari left Norway. Klaus Egge, a second cousin by marriage, took an early interest in Koll’s book and helped her with the Norwegian words from the beginning. And college friend Jim Skurdall, an American who lives in Norway as a translator, assisted in Koll’s research so Kari’s journey from Norway would be true to the late 19th century immigration experience.
Transforming these family stories into a published novel was a labor of love for Ms. Koll, who received support from so many. She incorporated feedback from her Whidbey Island-based writing group, the Circle of Stones; daughter Karen brought publishing experience to the table and helped with editing; Koll’s husband Bill skipped stones for the cover photograph; and her sister-in-law did the title calligraphy. “No one does anything alone,” said Koll, “just like the characters in ‘Skipping Stones.’”
Skipping Stones: A Story of Finding Home is available for purchase at several bookstores, including Moonraker Books in Langley, Wash.; Ingebretsen’s in Minneapolis, Minn.; and others. Ask for it at your local Scandinavian store or favorite bookshop, or find it online at www.amazon.com. Visit her website at www.gloriakoll.com to learn more, or email her directly at email@example.com.
Christy Olsen Field was on the editorial staff of the Norwegian American Weekly from 2008 to 2012, and the Taste of Norway page was her favorite section. Today, she is a freelance grantwriter for small to mid-size nonprofits with her business, Christy Ink. Learn more at www.christy.ink.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.