History with verve

Yilek’s new book tells Stories of Norway

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

From Norse myth to the tale of a seven-year-old Norwegian queen’s tragic voyage—from witch trials in Finnmark to adventures of World War II resistance fighters, the newly published Stories of Norway entertains as well as it enlightens. Much of the material has never been presented in English before—and the material is gripping.

Stories of Norway is the second book by John Yilek, author of The History of Norway. For his newest endeavor, Yilek collected and translated true stories from Norway’s rich history, presenting them in clear, colorful narratives that flesh out the human drama, rescuing them from the more staid confines of scholarly accounts.

This is a book for readers who love Norway and who will be fascinated by the adventures and challenges its history holds. But you wouldn’t have to know a thing about the country to be pulled in by the book’s contents.

A seasoned storyteller—Yilek knows his material and his language—he utilizes a large amount of previously untranslated material from the original Norwegian. He himself is “half Norwegian” and has traveled extensively in Norway.

Professionally a retired Minneapolis-based lawyer, he teaches Norwegian History at the Mindekirken Norwegian Language and Culture Program in Minneapolis and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota. He has also presented seminars at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and the Norwegian Heritage Center Livsreise in Stoughton, Wisconsin. And as with his live presentations, Yilek knows how to hold an audience, blending the drama of historical events with clarity and verve.

The book, which has illustrations, contains 19 narratives. Chapters unfold true accounts of people and events from pre-Viking times to World War II in Norway. The stories show how Vikings, slaves, farmers, warriors, and nobles lived in Norway and what they believed. Similarly, the stories about WWII tell of ordinary people and how they reacted to the war and the German occupation. Yilek covers many different locales—Finnmark, Lofoten, Helgeland, Trondheim, Valdres, Bergen, Gudbrandsdalen, Telemark, Oslo, and Romerike.

New translations
“I tell those true stories and fact-based legends chronologically in the context of Norway’s history,” Yilek notes. “Most of the stories are preceded by an explanation of the related periods of history. So it is a story book but also a history book that describes Norway’s past from ancient times to the 20th century.”

In addition, some of the stories are not found in other English-language sources: “So I am exposing readers in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries to some new material they probably have not seen before.”

He exposes readers to some important historical writings, such as the Tune Runestone, the Song of Rig, the Lay of Harald, Heimskringla, and The King’s Mirror, providing a rich variety of characters including royalty, saints, clergy, farmers and fishermen, emigrants, laborers, resistance men and women, and Sámi.

By design, some episodes are upbeat while others are darker, such as the description of union strife in the 1920s and 1930s. “My objective is to give the reader a realistic view of Norway’s history, whether pro or con,” Yilek notes.

Of witches and immigrants
One chilling chapter covers the persecution of witches and warlocks that became widespread in Norway in the 16th and 17th centuries. From 1567 to 1754, there were more than 1,000 witch trials in Norway, with about 300 alleged witches being executed—including 50 men, Yilek notes. The women were usually burned at the stake.

“The witch trials were a miscarriage of justice,” he writes. “Convictions were based on false or fabricated evidence.” The shameful phenomenon became less frequent in the late 1600s when defendants were allowed to hire lawyers, and we read in Stories of Norway that eventually, more educated judges refused to convict defendants based on superstition. Norway’s last execution for witchcraft occurred in 1695.

In another example from Stories of Norway, Yilek analyzes the various reasons behind Norwegian immigration and focuses on Oleana, the settlement started by Ole Bull, world-famous violinist and Norwegian patriot. Bull started a colony in a remote corner of Pennsylvania, buying the land sight unseen. Yilek notes that the beautiful mountainous landscape had hardly any level land for farming, and, in short, “Oleana went bust.” Several Norwegian newspapers heaped scorn on him, and “Ole Bull and his failed settlement became the laughing stock of Norway.”

Stories of Norway covers centuries, stopping here and there to zero in on a particular dramatic moment in time, to paint a vivid tableau of Norway through the ages. Chances are, most readers have never been there before. The new release will provide a vividly engaging journey.

Stories of Norway is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at bookstores and Scandinavian gift shops.

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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