Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing by Ryan Rodgers
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
With the Winter Olympics in Beijing this year, Nordic skiing is on the minds of many. Norway has led the way, with many Americans not far behind.
They say that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, but what are the actual origins of the sport, and how did it take hold in North America?
You’re in luck, for there is a new book that answers all of these questions. Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing by Ryan Rodgers, published by the University of Minnesota Press, is a comprehensive look at the history of Nordic skiing in the Midwest, which has long been the epicenter of the sport in North America. With 361 pages and chock-full of photographs and illustrations, it is the perfect winter read, both for skiers and those wishing to learn more about skiing.
Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Duluth, Minn., and an avid cross-country skier. While he wasn’t exactly born with skis on his feet, he takes his sport seriously, and it shows in his research and writing in this book.
After a brief overview of the origins of skiing, the author dives into his subject matter with the story of Gullick Laugen, a Norwegian immigrant in the Rock Prairie settlement in southern Wisconsin, who one day strapped on a set of boards to his feet and set off to Beloit to buy some flour. When his neighbors saw the strange tracks he left in the snow, they wondered if they had been invaded by some sort of unknown monster. This sets the right tone for the first chapter, “Just Add Norwegians: 1840-1900.”
As the book continues, we learn that Nordic skiing was brought to the American Midwest by the Norwegians. This happened partly out of practical considerations—many of them hunted on skis—but skiing also took off in both Norway and North America as a spectator sport in the 19th century. Sondre Norheim became a legend in both the old and new worlds and was the rock star skier of his day. Then the many ski jumping clubs of the Midwest began to pop up and started to sensationalize skiing, for what could be more exciting that watching daredevils fly through the air? Cross-country skiing was perhaps a bit harder of a sell, but the sport continued to grow into the 20th century.
Many pages are devoted to the American Birkebeiner race, the “Birkie,” the annual cross-country race that takes place in Cable-Hayward, Wis., founded in 1973 and the largest cross-county skiing race in North America. Rodgers personalizes his prose by reporting on his own adventure there, and in general, it is this conversational tone that makes this book so readable.
Rodgers’ book is not devoid of social commentary, as we learn of the obstacles that women faced in entering the sport. For young girls, it was natural to participate in outdoor life on skis, but up until the 1970s, women were not really allowed to engage in Nordic skiing as a competitive sport. The author also explores the concept of Norwegian idrett, the building of community through sports, as opposed the heavy commercialization of downhill skiing. Even with superstars like Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins, who struck gold at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, cross-country skiing remains relatively accessible and egalitarian. Youth Nordic clubs remain popular throughout the Midwest region for this reason. Despite climate change and changing social habits, Rodgers sees a bright future for the sport.
There is a lot to consume in Winter’s Children, and the sheer volume of the book may be somewhat daunting, but this is a book that I highly recommend for all Norwegian Americans and anyone interested in winter sports. You can easily pick it up and read the various chapters at your leisure, and with its visual presentation, it even makes a great coffee table book for your home. It is a book that you will want to keep, and with a listed price of $34.95, it is a true bargain.
Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing by Ryan Rodgers, is available from major booksellers. For more information, visit the University of Minnesota Press website at upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/winteras-children.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.