Letters home tell an immigrant’s story
M. Michael Brady
The title Amerikabrev (America Letters) denominates the great body of letters exchanged between those who left and those who stayed. There have been books and exhibitions dedicated to them. That said, this Amerikabrev differs in that it offers neither an overview nor a handful of rags-to-riches stories of the lucky few. Author Linda Stewart is an ethnographer, so this book is an engrossing ethnography of one family, who, like most Norwegian Americans of the era, worked hard and remained relatively anonymous.
The storyline focuses on letters sent and received by Randi Pedersdatter Holtsæteren (1860-1953), a smallholder’s daughter from Gausdal in the Gudbrands Valley. They were chosen from among many kept in the archives of Norwegian Migration Museum near Hamar, because Randi wrote often and well.
The account of Randi’s life mirrors Norwegian-American customs of her time. Her full maiden surname was Pedersdatter Holtsæteren, a patronymic after her father, Peder Johansen Holtsæteren (1818-1893). In marriage, she took the surname of her husband Mathias Andersen Kankrud. That surname changed with time in America. Andersen was anglicized to Anderson, and later Kankrud, the name of Mathias’ ancestral farm, was shortened to Rued.
Randi and Mathias were married on March 19, 1889, in the Gausdal Church, where Randi had been baptized and confirmed. A week later they left for America, first from Kristiania (now Oslo) on the Wilson Lines steamship SS Rollo to Hull in England, then across England by train to Liverpool, then from there to New York on the Cunard Lines passenger liner SS Servia (book cover photo), and finally by train to the village of Curtiss in Wisconsin. The journey from Gausdal to Curtiss took in all three weeks, swift by the travel norms of the day.
The first letter that Randi received in America was postmarked April 19, 1889, and franked with a Norwegian 20 øre (NOK 0.2) stamp, then an appreciable part of the daily wage of a Norwegian seaman.
The couple quickly assimilated into the burgeoning Norwegian-American life of Curtiss. They became a successful farming family with four children, Axel (1889-1967), Marie (1891-1976), Paul (1891-1970) and Agnes (1896-1977). They were active in the Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Congregation and helped build its first church in 1897.
Randi’s letters are a faithful diary of fortuitous family life. Others who had traveled with them to America were less fortunate. In February 1896, Engebret Johansen, a childhood friend of Mathias who had moved from Wisconsin to South Dakota, wrote to report that his wife had died after five and a half years of marriage, leaving him with three small children. He summed up his situation by remarking that “Livet her i Amerika har været en tung og sorgful korsgang” (Life here in America has been a hard, sorrowful penitential journey.) Indeed, the life of an immigrant in America could be harsh.
This book is a carefully crafted record of a voice from out of the past, set in the context of its era, a worthy contribution to the literature of Norwegian-American heritage.
Amerikabrev by Linda Stewart was published by Museums-forlaget in 2017 (Norwegian).
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.