The Rise of Little Big Norway, by John F. L. Ross

Book review

The Norwegian American

It’s a peculiar time to review a book about the rise of the Norway we recognize today. To think about the slow forces that have conspired to make Norway a social and economic marvel during the time of COVID-19 seems almost foolish. Much time and patience have gone into building the resource base, establishing the political structures, and developing the cultural attitudes that have lent it outsized global influence and provided its people an envied place atop the world happiness index. The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted history for all the world, suspending arguments that might be made about social, political, and economic realities as we know them. After coronavirus, the game is new.

Yet, as the Norwegian media have been quick to point out, Norway also tops at least one list of nations that are most likely to endure the corona crisis intact. The historical and cultural forces that have made this resilience possible are the subject of John. F. L. Ross’s compelling book, The Rise of Little Big Norway.

The highly ambitious book covers a vast swath of history in its attempt to articulate how the sparsely populated, agriculturally difficult, weather-beaten nation that lived for centuries beneath the colonial thumb of its neighbors, became a quiet giant on the global stage, filling britches far bigger than many of its European counterparts and heaving its influence (and its tourists) in far flung corners of the earth.

This paradox of size and scope serves as the central motif of the book. Ross works hard to point out the numerous contradictions that define Norway, with vigorous writing, even if the energy of paradox gets away from him at times, as in the preface when he writes, “Arguably understudied as a subject, Norway has been inarguably underestimated as a country,” and, “Having long eschewed a self-conscious world role, it has almost self-consciously eschewed such a role.”

The argument of the book, nevertheless, is nuanced and compelling. What shines through is the idea that what helped make little old Norway into big modern Norway is its continual, quiet insistence on its own smallness (even, as Ross rightly argues at one point, it generates a provincial “smugness of small” that can be off-putting to outsiders). Paradoxically, it helped that, nestled between flashier Sweden and Denmark, under whose rule Norway spent most of the modern era, the little country on the coast could continue to develop its identity and its economic networks without anybody noticing. It is, Ross reminds us, “an old nation but a young state.”

One of the more compelling articulations of what I see as Ross’s central argument comes in the chapter on Danish rule, aptly titled, “Long Night’s Journey into Day.” Because Norway under Denmark didn’t have to weather geopolitical storms on its own two feet, it was able to follow regional and global changes without direct conflict, adapting “a propensity for non-confrontational change and a bent for nontraditional solutions that was to shape the country’s modern personality.”

The fortune of timing also aided Norway’s development. Ross discusses the undersung trade relationship with the Dutch, forming a propitious mutual support-system: while the Dutch were building their mercantilist empire, Norwegian wood literally supported the city of Amsterdam (it stood on millions of piers of Norway pine) and kept mercantile ships afloat (many of which, Ross fails to mention, also certainly transported enslaved people to the Americas).

Amid the historical developments that gave rise to modern Norway, Ross also traces the cultural developments, chalking up a big part of Norway’s success to the quiet modesty that stereotypically characterizes its people. He sees the development of the national identity as a product of the almost too-perfect marriage of history and geography: the movement from the Viking era to Danish rule to Swedish rule and finally to modern statehood, all while inhabiting “a perpetual cul-de-sac” at the edge of the world, gave rise to a peculiar brand of modesty born of the paradoxical blend of isolation and expedition.

The book is organized around the structure of that marriage. The first part discusses Norway’s special geography and its inhabitants’ long-documented penchant for looking “outward” (from Erik the Red and Leif Eriksen) and “forward,” as immortalized in the name of Fridtjof Nansen’s Arctic research ship, Fram).

Part two traces the “fractured” historical timeline that helped shape Norway’s political position. As Ross succinctly notes, “Simplified to its core, Norway in 1000 seemed invincible; by 1500 it had vanished into the Danish maw; by 2000 Norwegians again seemed atop the world.” He shows that after independence from Denmark, being swept under a corner of the rug of Swedish power allowed Norway to express its national identity without the need for “militaristic nationalism.” The state, he argues, was “muffled” so the nation could sing.

The third, and to my mind, weakest part of the book discusses the contemporary moment, examining Norway’s complicated (and compliant) relationship with the EU, oil, and the Nobel Peace Prize. These chapters get bogged down in comparisons with European neighbors and the wonky alphabet soup of European political organizations. The exception is the chapter on oil, where Ross rightly points out that much “has been written about what oil has done for Norway. Thoughtful types increasingly ask what it’s doing to Norway.”

A few pieces of the puzzle are conspicuously missing, or merit mere passing mentions. One chapter is devoted to the rise of Norwegian sports. It feels a bit obligatory, as though one can’t speak of Norway’s dominance in global issues without mentioning sports. But a more serious gap is a missing chapter on the Nazi occupation of Norway. Ross finishes the chapter on the Swedish union by rightly suggesting that the Nazi occupation was “a coming trial that would prove the making of contemporary Norway,” only to follow with the chapter on sports, leaving out a dark but vital moment in the story of little big Norway.

Indeed, short of a multi-volume tome, it is impossible to fully achieve what Ross sets out to do in this well-researched and, overall, sharply written overview. The energy of his prose and his obvious personal investment in, as he puts it, “finding Norway,” make for a compelling read. And despite a couple of notable gaps, The Rise of Little Big Norway is a truly enlightening—and unexpectedly timely—glimpse into the becoming of the little nation that gives this newspaper its name. Whether the structures Ross describes are resilient enough to endure the coronavirus pandemic remains to be seen. But given the fractured timeline this book traces, there’s plenty of reason to hope.

The Rise of Big Little Norway was published in 2019 by Anthem Books and is available in paperback at most major booksellers online.

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Andy Meyer

Andy Meyer is a literature and language teacher with over 15 years of experience in colleges, universities, and independent high schools. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and teaches Norwegian there. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.