Historian Odd Lovoll on his Two Homelands

Book review

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles, Calif.

Two HomelandsThe first immigrants from Norway sailed into New York harbor on their sloop “Restauration” on Oct. 9, 1825, after a grueling voyage of 14 weeks. During the next century, more than 800,000 Norwegians would cross “the pond” to arrive in America, their numbers swelling—after seven generations—to over 4.5 million people today—nearly as many people as in Norway itself.

Odd S. Lovoll—himself such an immigrant—has written many books about the waves of émigrés from Norway. In fact, he’s known as the greatest authority on immigration from Norway to America. He has lived in both countries—as a child during World War II in Norway, moving to the new land as a teenager, then living a distinguished life in which he and his family moved back and forth between the two countries.

Lovoll knows the immigrant experience firsthand. He also knows about the history and life experience of his people, both in their native land and in the diaspora. As J.R. Christianson of Luther College noted, “Odd S. Lovoll knows more about Scandinavians in America than any other living person.”

He’s shared that knowledge with Norwegian Americans—and others—for decades, writing several books on the Norwegian-American immigrant experience. Now professor emeritus of history at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, he wrote Norwegians on the Prairie, Across the Deep Blue Sea, and Norwegian Newspapers in America, as well as The Promise Fulfilled: A Portrait of Norwegian Americans Today. 

Shore to shore         

Odd Lovoll - Two Homelands

Photo: Gary G. Erickson
Odd Lovoll’s memoir reveals the struggles of immigrating to America and then back to Norway.

And now, Odd (pronounced Ode) Lovoll is sharing his own story of growing up in one homeland and living life in another—“Standing with one foot in Norway and one in America.” He has balanced the two, helping Norwegian Americans understand and appreciate their people’s experiences. The full title of his latest book is Two Homelands: A Historian Considers His Life and Work. The story of his life begins against the backdrop of world events.

Norway was invaded in April 1940. Lovoll’s father was living in America as the rest of the family endured the war in Norway. He writes about the “explosions and shattering windows as the Lovoll family huddled in the basement.” He gives details on how the German occupants confiscated meat and fish and farm products, leading to extreme food shortages. He was particularly distressed by the treatment the Jews of Norway received, both by the Germans and by many Norwegians. The sensitive youth had many nightmares during the war. “Children were not spared the reality of death,” he notes. The Germans surrendered in May 1945. The next month, Odd learned that his father wanted the rest of the family to join him in America.

Once there, the reunited Lovoll family became part of the “established and aging Norwegian and Norwegian American environment,” at a time when immigration was at a low point, and Norwegian was spoken less and less, even in the church, in the process of “generational assimilation.” But Norwegian cultural heritage had a longer lifespan. Lovoll describes the emergence of Norwegian-American newspapers, including that of Nordisk Tidende, a parent organ of The Norwegian American.

“Because of its Brooklyn Location,” Lovoll writes, “Nordisk Tidende had greater access to the Norwegian exile community and therefore a special role in informing not only the Norwegian-American community but also the general American public about the adversity suffered in the occupied territory.”

As the war ended, large numbers of Norwegians in exile were returning to the homeland. But not until they had celebrated the return of peace. Thousands marched in May 17 parades in 1945, and even more lined the streets.

Clogs and burlap

Meanwhile, the Lovoll family was adapting to life in America. Typical of the detail throughout the book, Lovoll describes how they were able to get new clothes, tossing away what they were forced to wear during the war: “Wooden clogs… had become common footwear, and clothes, when they could be bought at all, might be made of paper burlap, even fish skin was employed in the manufacture of shoes and apparel. Happier days awaited.”

He describes the challenges of adjusting to a new life in America. The young Lovoll noticed that “Norwegians in general avoided speaking Norwegian in public.” His own father would not speak Norwegian to his family on the city bus “because people would turn and look.” And even more recent arrivals like Lovoll looked down on the way many Norwegians spoke with their old dialects. He tells the poignant story of a grandfather who could speak no English and his young American-born grandchildren, who could not understand Norwegian at all. The immigrants with their differing accents faced painful—and often comedic—linguistic troubles as they adjusted to life in America.

When Lovoll was a teenager, the family returned to Norway, which by then had become “the foreign country.” He describes his adjustment at school where “the students viewed me with some curiosity. I remained the American—the outsider.” And although he went on to be friends with his classmates, he was “never fully accepted by them as being Norwegian.”

He would return to America again to take up his new post teaching Norwegian at the University of North Dakota, with the family settling in Grand Forks, N.D. He went on to get graduate degrees, and started scouring Norwegian immigrant newspapers. He got his doctorate in 1970, and joined the faculty of St. Olaf College. During this time he also became an American citizen.

The Norwegian-American teacher and author would go on to write 32 books, become the editor of the Norwegian American Historical Association, and bring the story of Norwegians in the United States to both countries.

This title, his latest, is moving and friendly, full of warm family details—and photographs—as well as tales of the hard times and poignant observations. It is revealing of the immigrant experience, based on his own life story—“standing with one foot in Norway and one in America, which has given me a unique understanding of and familiarity with the history, culture, and social dynamics of both nations: two homelands.”

The book: Two Homelands: A Historian Considers His Life and Work, by Odd Lovoll, was published by the Norwegian American Historical Association and the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2018.

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects. 

This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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