“History of Norway” is a quick, fascinating read

Just in time to do your homework about what really happened on Syttende Mai!


Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

The quickly approaching observance of Syttende Mai will, of course, feature legions of dignitaries bellowing forth historical tributes to Norway.

Of course, they won’t have time to go very deep before the hoisting of the Norwegian flag and the outcries of “Hurra! Hurra!” and the hot dogs and ice cream.

By now most Norwegian-Americans think they know the story of 112 men who gathered in Eidsvoll outside Oslo some 200 years ago to proclaim Norwegian independence. But that barely scratches the surface; actually, it’s a complex drama rife with unexpected turns of events, peppered with intrigues, rivalries, blockades, and changing borders.

To really get a feel for this most celebrated moment in Norway’s history, it helps to know the details of that drama—as well, of course, as the entire history of the country for a good, solid background.

While the prospect of reading a history book evokes memories of tedious facts and homework assignments, that’s absolutely not the case here. Just in time for Norwegian Americans to catch up on the story of Syttende Mai in succinct, clear, and dramatic form, a new book has been released, simply titled History of Norway. The author is John Yilek, a Minnesota-based retired attorney who spends much of his time in Norway.

It’s easy to recall that May 17 marks Norway’s declaration of independence and signing of a constitution on that date in 1814. But there’s so much more. A dizzying array of palace intrigues and conflicting loyalties, bloody conflicts, crossed ambitions, and legendary love stories twist their way along the circuitous path leading to that date.

It’s all spelled out in Yilek’s History of Norway. Tracing the country’s history from the earliest cultures of the Stone Age to the present day, it is the first comprehensive book about Norway’s history to be written in English in more than 50 years!

“The last such histories of Norway were written by Professor Karen Larsen of St. Olaf College in the 1940s and by a British author named T.K. Derry in the 1950s,” Yilek noted, adding that there are American authors who have written books about the Vikings, emigration, World War II, and other specific periods of Norway’s history, “but nothing that covers the full history of the country like this one does.”

“This one” is filled with stories of Vikings, the Sami, kings and queens, farmers and fishermen, the Black Death, the Reformation, Norwegian independence, emigration from Norway to America, World War II in Norway, and much more.

Most of the research for the book was conducted in the Norwegian non-fiction collection at the University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library. A graduate of the university, Yilek says the library boasts a rich collection of Norwegian-language fiction and nonfiction.

“I speak and read Norwegian, and most of my sources were written in Norwegian,” he noted. “Most books and articles about Norwegian history are written in Norwegian, and I wanted to share that information with the English-speaking public.”

Yilek’s work is written in clear narrative, full of colorful details and rich with lesser-known but dramatic accounts that shaped the events in Norway and Europe in those early years of the 19th century—as well as the preceding millennia.

Before attending and graduating from law school at the University of Minnesota and a stint as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, Yilek received a B.A. in international relations with an emphasis on European history and politics.

He has focused on Norwegian history for many years, traveling there frequently to visit cousins. His ancestors in Norway lived near the historic mining town of Røros and in the mountain valleys of Luktvatnet and Susendalen in Nordland.

While the subject matter should be of interest to all citizens of the English-speaking world, the book is especially salient for Norwegian Americans. It’s been “tested” on them for years. Yilek, who lives in Stillwater, Minn., teaches Norwegian history part-time in the Mindekirken Norwegian Language and Culture Program in Minneapolis. (Mindekirken is the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church.) He knows what Norwegian Americans want to know about their history.

Fluent in Norwegian, he also co-founded Mindekirken’s first advanced Norwegian conversation group, and has taught many courses for college and law students, lawyers, business people, and countless Norwegian Americans.

The concise 270-page History of Norway includes accounts that aren’t usually available to the English readers. It goes beneath the surface in key historical milestones, from the arrival of the “first true Norwegians”— tall, blond-haired settlers in southern Norway about 2800 BC—to World War II, as the king and the Norwegian government escaped Oslo before the Germans got there, ruining Hitler’s plan to take over and operate the Norwegian government.

It’s a fast moving read. “My main objective is to give the reader a fundamental understanding of Norway’s history in just a few hours of reading time,” Yilek notes. And that it does. With a lot of discovery and amazement along the way.

The book is available in paperback or e-book at bookstores, Scandinavian gift shops, and online booksellers.

This article originally appeared in the May 15, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.