Notable Norwegians: Martha Ostenso

Wild Geese Martha Ostenso New Canadian Library 3

David Moe

Martha Ostenso was born in 1900 and lived on a farm near Bergen, Norway. When she was two years old, her family emigrated to Canada and during the next 11 years, she lived in seven small towns in Minnesota and South Dakota. She attended the University of Manitoba for one year, then worked as a teacher, railroad baggage clerk, newspaper reporter, and social worker.

In 1921, her poems began to appear in magazines, and by 1924 a small volume of 43 poems was published, entitled A Far Land. At the age of 25, her first novel, Wild Geese, was published, and she received $13,500 in prize money for it, the largest literary prize then offered in America. She achieved much success as a novelist in the 1920s and 30s, producing 15 novels, 30 short stories, a biography of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, and some poetry, and continued to write until 1958. She was the first Norwegian-American woman to support her family with her writing. During the Depression of the 1930s, she averaged from $30,000 to $40,000 a year in income. Her works were translated into 45 languages and printed in at least 10 countries.

Ostenso’s material was drawn from her experience. She used Norwegian motifs and wrote in English—about the pioneers’ experience with blizzards, prairie fires, and epidemics. She wrote about man’s desire for land at the expense of others, paternal dominance, and the Nordic woman’s rebellion against it. She wrote about humanity’s desire to control nature only to be consumed by it.

Martha Ostenso gained the attention and friendship of other American authors of her day, such as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Films were made of Wild Geese (1927) and Sister Kenny (1946). She died in 1963.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 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.