Red River Girl/Jenta ved Red River
ODD S. LOVOLL
Professor Emeritus, St. Olaf College
Red River Girl/Jenta ved Red River (2020) may be classified as local history in the historical context of immigration from Fyresdal in Telemark to the Buffalo River, a tributary to the Red River near Moorhead, Minn. The narrative presents an engaging social history that focuses on individual life experiences. It indeed illustrates the tenet that if you have a person, you have a story.
This special edition is bilingual, English and New Norse. Torkel Oftelie, editor of Telesoga, the magazine of Telelaget of America, saw literary New Norse, or landsmaal, as nearly identical to what he termed the Tele language. Oftelie consequently modified the orthography of dialect material in that direction.
A number of well-informed authors are represented, making it an anthology. All the contributed essays concentrate mainly on Orabel Thortvedt (1886-1983), as the central figure, and on her family and ancestry. The family saga titled Red River Girl by Orabel Josephine Thortvedt forms more than half of the book. She began writing her first diary in 1923 and by the late 1930s had a manuscript of Red River Girl. Attempts to have it published failed. Orabel continued to rewrite and work on the manuscript until the end of her life.
Early on, Thortvedt demonstrated creative talents, which Tilman Hartenstein in his preface affirms was a family trait. Mark Peihl calls the Thortvedts “a talented bunch.” Professor Betty Bergland traces how she became an artist and historian. During her teenage years, Orabel went partially deaf. It was then that she began in earnest to engage in writing, drawing, painting, and sculpture. She learned lip reading at a school for the deaf in Minneapolis. On a scholarship, she studied art and creative writing at the Minneapolis School of Art and the University of Minnesota. In 1934, she had an exhibition at the Minnesota State Fair.
In the first chapter, and there are 21, Orabel identifies herself as “A girl in the Red River Valley” and wonders why she could not be a good American and still keep the Norwegian ways and traditions. In the final paragraph of chapter 21, she declares that having two inheritances, the one from Norway and the one from America, has made her richer.
Her striking artwork highlights the narrative throughout the book. It is local history at its best. The first image in Chapter 1 is titled “My Ancestral Home,” and the second one, “Buffalo River a tale of the emigrant and the pioneer.” In 1861, as many as 111 people left the Fyresdal parish for America, a truly astounding number. Dag Borgemoen, while stressing individual reasons for leaving the homeland, mainly attributes the emigration wave to population growth, some bad years, and the better expectations in America.
Olav Gunnarson Thortvedt, Orabel’s grandfather, her grandmother Tone Leivsdotter Songedal, along with their three children, Joraand, 6 years old, Thone, 4, and Leif/Levi, father of Orabel, only 1 year old, were among the Fyresdal immigrants who in 1861, ”braving the deep,” as Orabel has it, crossed the Atlantic on an old sail-ship, landing in Quebec, Canada, after eight weeks. Two more children were born in America, Signe in 1863 and Gunnar, who died in infancy. In a full-page painting Orabel, shows her grandparents “discussing details of the great journey.”
Their initial destination in America was Houston County in southeastern Minnesota. It took some time to find a permanent location. In 1862, they purchased 40 acres of land at Mound Prairie Township. Jim Skree expands on the story of settlement, often citing Orabel. The American Civil War became a part of adjusting to the new land. Many Norwegian immigrants in Houston reported for duty. They also joined the Norwegian Lutheran congregation and took part in building their own church. Orabel painted a picture of the church from a photograph.
The Norwegian settlements became densely populated, which created a longing to move on. The Norwegian Spring Grove Township in Houston County, as an example, became a destination and distribution point for Norwegian immigrants. The Norwegian journalist Paul Hjelm Hansen is credited with opening the Red River Valley to Norwegian settlement. His report of his journey through the Red River Valley appeared in Folkebladet the summer of 1869. It is reprinted in Red River Girl.
The spring of 1870, Olav Thortvedt and his family took “the long weary road,” as Orabel writes, to Buffalo River in Clay County. He became the founder of the frontier Buffalo River Norwegian Settlement. A portrait of Thortvedt decorates a whole page. The pioneers weathered a period of trials and hardships. Orabel describes in disturbing detail the great winter blizzard of 1873, the grasshopper plague, and the destructive winds during harvest season. The pioneer days were gradually coming to an end. By the time she was born, she claims, “the modern day” had arrived. Following the death of her parents, Levi and Ingeborg, Orabel in 1938 returned from Minneapolis to the Thortvedt family farm in Clay County. She lived there until the end of her life with her brothers Goodwin and Norman and sisters Eva and Stella, who, like herself, never married. She had a working space in the attic, where she spent her days drawing, painting, and typing the Thortvedt story over and over.
The historical insight Red River Girl provides into the personalized immigrant experience makes it highly recommended reading. As a historian of Norwegian immigration and Norwegian American history, I found the narrative both captivating and enlightening.
Tilman Hartenstein, Mark Peihl, Dag Borgemoen, and Lene Teigland Kleivi, eds., Red River Girl/Jenta ved Red River. Frå Telemark til Buffalo/From Telemark to The Buffalo. The Art of Orabel Thortvedt/Orabel Thortvedt og kunsten hennar (Eidsborg, Tokke, Norway: Vest-Telemark Museum. Moorhead, Minn.: Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, 2020).
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.