Searching for Nora
A novel sequel to Ibsen’s classic
Christine Foster Meloni
Wendy Swallow is the latest in a long line of writers searching for Nora. Why this fascination to find Nora, a woman who disappeared in 1879? That was 140 years ago!
What makes the search for her particularly puzzling is the fact that she never really existed. The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created her as the protagonist of one of his most celebrated plays, A Doll’s House.
At the end of the play, Nora abandons her husband and her three young children, slamming the door forcefully behind her as she escapes. The audiences in Ibsen’s time were shocked. Audiences today are surprised as well, not so much for her leaving her husband but for abandoning her children, and they wonder what then happens to Nora. What is her fate?
Swallow may have the definitive answer. In her novel Searching for Nora, she has written literary fiction that seems more like historical fiction. She looks at Nora through the lens of history.
This book is not only well-written and engaging; it is also very well-researched. It offers the reader a perfectly plausible explanation and sheds an accurate light on Nora’s times.
Swallow begins by thoroughly analyzing Ibsen’s play. Most importantly, she considers the two main characters, Nora and her husband, Torvald. What makes them tick? She wisely does not always take what they say at face value. She finds that Nora lies a lot. Why does she lie when asked if she has been eating macaroons? What about Torvald? Are his special names for his wife affectionate or belittling? What evidence is there to show that Nora was unhappy enough not only to leave her husband but also her three children?
Swallow then immerses herself in the Norway of the 1880s, particularly in the capital Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925). What would Nora have faced trying to live by herself at that time? The outlook was not favorable. Swallow shows Nora’s battle to find work and to be accepted socially. Her heroine fails miserably.
Nora, therefore, feels forced to go elsewhere. Not only is the capital city hostile to a “fallen woman” (such as Nora is thought to be) but all of Norway rejects her. She opts to go to America. While researching Norwegian immigration patterns, Swallow discovered that most emigrants went to New York, Chicago, or Minnesota. She admits falling in love with Minnesota. Her next step was to decide upon a suitable place for Nora in Minnesota. After reading about and visiting several counties, she finally chose the county of Lac qui Parle (French for The Lake that Speaks). Nora settles down there and starts a very different life.
Does she ever return to Norway? Does she ever see her children again? Ah! No spoilers here!
But wait! Swallow introduces another strong female character and “braids” this woman’s story into Nora’s. Chapter 1 begins in spring 1919, when we find Nora in Spokane, Wash. Chapter 2 begins in November 1918 and we find Solveig (known as Solvi) in Bergen, Norway. The book’s conclusion takes place in July 1919.
Solvi is a young Norwegian woman, who, the reader realizes immediately, has a mind of her own. She lives with her widowed mother in the small town of Hamar but is preparing to leave for Oslo, where she wants to study history. Her mother desperately opposes her decision as an improper choice for a woman of her social class. She wants Solvi to marry (she has, in fact, already arranged the marriage) and settle down.
Rebellious Solvi is adamant. She is leaving, but first, she wants her mother to identify the people in a family portrait that her grandfather had tried to burn unsuccessfully before he died. She sees a man, his wife, and three small children. She finally convinces her mother to tell her who is in the photo and discovers that they are her grandparents, two uncles, and her mother.
Solvi knows nothing about the existence of this grandmother or these uncles. She grew up with her own parents and knew nothing about them. She is intrigued, but no more information is forthcoming.
Shortly thereafter, she leaves for Oslo and becomes a rare female student. She studies history, and in her spare time tries to learn more about her grandmother. Based on what she learns, she eventually heads for America. Does she ever find her grandmother? Maybe. No spoilers here, either!
Swallow does a masterful job of switching back and forth between the stories of the two women and the two time periods. Each chapter clearly indicates the person and the time.
Based on the author’s extensive research, the reader not only becomes more familiar with Ibsen’s play but also the position of women in different periods of both Norwegian and American history.
But Searching for Nora does not read like a book of history. It is literature at its best, with two riveting tales of two very fascinating women, who fought—against all odds—to live the lives they wanted to live.
Will anyone else dare attempt to write a sequel to A Doll’s House? It would take a courageous person to do so. Swallow has set a very high bar.
For more information about the author and the book, go to Swallow’s website at www.searchingfornora.web.com. The book is available in paperback and e-book format and a list of distributors is offered. A book club guide is provided.
This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.