THE EMIGRANTS by Vilhelm Moberg
Part 1 - Gates on the Road to America
This is a story of the Swedish farmers who emigrated to America. They came from the province of Smaland and set sail in 1850. The central family consists of Karl Oskar Nilsson and his wife Kristina, their children and Karl Oskar's brother Robert.
Karl Oskar and Kristina are honest and hard-working. They love their children. Karl Oskar is stubborn and considered to be his own man. He has a large nose, believed to be a lucky family trait.
On Kristina's lighter side is her fondness for swinging, even after becoming an adult. She once fell from a swing and broke her kneecap.
In time, the hardships of working barren land in Sweden and the anxiety about weather and crops take their toll. Debts mount, and Karl Oskar fears that his farm will not provide for his family. Karl Oskar's brother Robert is 10 years younger. They were never close. Robert is a dreamer. He is interested in books. His parents put a cowbell around his neck because he kept wandering off.
When Robert is supposed to go into service as a farmhand, he fakes his own drowning to escape. He gets caught. Later, his master strikes him for being lazy, damaging his ear. Robert interprets the buzzing he hears as the call of the sea. He befriends his roommate, Arvid, and together they plan a journey to America.
Arvid is a comic character, pretending he can read and hoping it might be possible to walk to America. His master's mother-in-law began a rumor about him, that he had sexual relations with a white heifer. Arvid was henceforth called The Bull. Robert had to stop him from killing the old hag while in a drunken rage.
The Emigrants is a well-rounded novel, exploring different facets of human nature. Seriousness and humor co-exist. There is human sexuality, best exemplified in the relationship between Karl Oskar and Kristina. The couple find it impossible to restrain their appetites even while concerned about the number of children they have.
Sex has its bawdy side in Ulrika, the prostitute taken in by Kristina's Uncle Danjel after his religious experience. Science versus religion!
Biblical thinking grips the minds of the peasants, and they show an inability to cope with it. An Old Testament mentality prevails---superstition. There is a sense of conflict between spiritual teachings and the realities of the world. Even Karl Oskar in his struggles is vulnerable. He cannot reconcile God's will with his own.
Religious fanaticism comes to a head with Uncle Danjel. He revives a sect called the Akians after claiming to have seen Christ. Church authorities raid his home. Ulrika blunts their allegations by pointing out the churchwarden as one of her patrons.
Robert flees servitude after a whipping, and Karl Oskar gives him sanctuary. The brothers get close. Robert reveals his American scheme, only to find that his older brother has the same idea.
Karl Oskar grew obsessed with America after seeing a picture of a wheat field, so different from his stone-infested farm. Kristina opposed him initially, seeing the potential dangers in such a trip. She changed her mind when famine took the life of her oldest daughter. The girl stuffed herself on porridge which swelled in her stomach and killed her. This is the saddest part in the book.
America fever spreads. Danjel informs Karl Oskar and Kristina that he is going with them. They have mixed feelings. Danjel's wife, Inga-Lena, and their children will go also. Adding to the problem are Ulrika and her daughter and Robert's friend, Arvid, who has worked for Danjel and whose passage the gullible uncle will pay.
Who are the emigrants? They are the misfits, scorned, downtrodden, religious dissidents, ambitious and hopeful, the good and bad. All seek a better life. Karl Oskar is searching for fertile land. Robert is running from his superiors. Kristina and Inga-Lena are following their husbands.
The day before they leave, Kristina informs her husband she is pregnant. Karl Oskar jokes that at least one emigrant will travel for free. It will be their sixth child, four of which are living.
Sixteen emigrants head for the sea. In their wagons, they slowly get acquainted. Talk is lively. Kristina does not like the way Ulrika looks at Karl Oskar, and sparks fly between the two women. Nor can Kristina stand it when Ulrika flaunts her new religion.
Danjel is far out. He assures them all that true Christians need not fear seasickness.
Robert comes on to Ulrika's daughter, Elin. He tells her what he knows about America and tries to teach her English.
Part 2 - Peasants at Sea
The ship is the Charlotta. It is small, and conditions on board are miserable. The air in the hold is stifling. With so little room, people almost sleep on top of each other. Food and water are rationed, and the land-oriented peasants feel helpless. Only Robert has enough curiosity to take an interest in the ship: its sails and the dimensions of its deck. The ship's captain knows that not all his passengers will survive.
There is a chapter called "A Cargo of Dreams" in which each emigrant contemplates his or her decision to leave Sweden. They grapple with their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears about the future.
Ulrika reflects on how she was trained into whoring as a child. Her earthy fantasies are titillating. She senses Robert's desire for Elin and vows to protect her daughter. She smells the billy goat.
Elin's own musings tell us that she is not so naive. She knows what her mother is. Still, she loves and accepts her. These people are becoming real. Moberg takes us into their minds.
Kristina's hatred for Ulrika erupts when she finds herself covered with lice and blames the harlot as the one who spread them. When Ulrika offers to strip, Danjel intervenes to keep the two women from tearing each other apart. Ironically, everyone on the ship has lice except Ulrika. The crew jokes that things must be bad in Sweden if even the lice are emigrating.
In her weakened condition, Kristina imagines Karl Oskar and Ulrika together. Even though Ulrika is 37 and has had hundreds of men, she is still beautiful.
A storm arises, and waves rock the ship. There is seasickness and vomiting. Kristina dreams she is in a swing and cannot get out of it. Inga-Lena becomes seasick, and Danjel sees his wife as a doubter. Then he gets sick. Kristina is sickest and thinks she is going to die.
As they leave the English channel and sail into the ocean, the emigrants find themselves less bitter about their former home in Sweden. Wind, fog and the monotony of the ocean prey on their minds.
Kristina suffers from scurvy. Karl Oskar cannot have sex with his sickly wife and feels ashamed when his thoughts turn toward Ulrika.
Kristina begins to hemorrhage. Suspense grows as to whether or not she will live. Karl Oskar sits over her through the night, tormented.
Kristina pulls through. Inga-Lena dies instead, exhausted from doing her husband's work.
After more than two months, the Charlotta sails into New York harbor. Sight of the green earth revives the group. Karl Oskar is thinking of a place at the upper end of the Mississippi River called Minnesota.
UNTO A GOOD LAND by Vilhelm Moberg
From Manhattan, it is 1500 miles to Minnesota. Before departing, Karl Oskar feeds his family, and Robert and Arvid walk the length of Broadway, amazed at what they see. The group travels up the Hudson River by steamboat, from Albany to Buffalo by train and across the Great Lakes. They are now immigrants rather than emigrants.
Alienation is a theme in Unto A Good Land. The immigrants feel the limitations imposed upon them as foreigners. They do not know the geography and cannot speak the language. Dependence breeds suspicion and paranoia.
The tension between Kristina and Ulrika subsides. After an attack of conscience, Kristina shares a loaf of bread with her. Ulrika and Elin take care of Danjel's children.
At a stopover in Detroit, Ulrika totally vindicates herself in Karl Oskar's and Kristina's eyes. She recovers Lill-Marta, their three-year-old, from an orchard where she had gone to pick cherries. This is in the nick of time as the boat is about to leave. It is a touching scene when Karl Oskar takes the hand of the woman he so ridiculed.
The immigrants cut across the prairie and head up the Mississippi River. Arvid remains funny and stupid, fearing alligators which he calls crocodiles.
These novels are virtually non-violent when compared to a Hamlet or a War and Peace. They are strong on character, simple and plain. We find people determining their own course, not swept up in events so overwhelming as to have their actions dictated for them.
There is an emphasis on nature and the necessity of eking a living from the earth. There is not so much of war or what man has done to man. It is unexpected when at one point Karl Oskar eludes some would-be bandits. The possibility of evil lurks in the background, but it is secondary to man's struggle against the harsher side of nature. The immigrants yearn for freedom without having to harm anyone.
Once in Minnesota territory, they walk to their final destination. In the lush forest, they feel at home for the first time. Kristina and Ulrika laugh at the shaggy hair and beards of the men. Kristina uses wool shears on Karl Oskar, giving him the look of a sheep. Robert wants his hair short so he cannot be scalped by Indians.
When Danjel and Jonas Petter stake their claims near Swedish settlers, the obstinate Karl Oskar keeps going. Only when he feasts his eyes on Lake Ki-Chi-Saga does he feel he has arrived.
Ki-Chi-Saga is an Indian name, but it is Karl Oskar's for the taking. It is all here: the lake, oak trees, a pine forest and three feet of topsoil.
There is an optimism in the books and in Karl Oskar, an assurance that if we go hard enough and long enough, we will have the things we need.
Domestic life resumes. The settlers build cabins, make furniture, plow and planet, hunt and fish. Kristina prepares meals and mends clothing. Moberg gets down to basic survival.
Making it through the first winter is crucial. They need a cow for milk and flour for bread. Returning one night in the snow, Karl Oskar gets lost. He finds his way but realizes he might have frozen to death.
The sense of mission in the first book dissipates into a narrative of day-to-day living, into a compilation of anecdotes and close calls.
Of all the immigrants, only Kristina misses Sweden. She hides it. She now considers Ulrika a friend and requests her as midwife when the baby is born. The birth is described in detail. So is Kristina's attachment to her first child born in America.
The differences between the brothers soon surface. Robert is no farmer. He wants to get rich. Karl Oskar considers him a liar, ruled by his imagination. After the first winter, Robert and Arvid leave for the gold fields of California.
Having cleaned up her act, Ulrika begins getting proposals. Women are scarce, and she marries a Baptist minister.
The book ends with Kristina admitting to Karl Oskar how much she misses Sweden. Karl Oskar shares his vision of the future with her, that their children and grandchildren will one day thank them for emigrating to America. The pair agree to call their new home Duvemala after the village Kristina grew up in.
THE SETTLERS by Vilhelm Moberg
Life goes on for the emigrants turned immigrants turned settlers. Midway through the third book, we find out about Robert and Arvid. They never reached California. Arvid died from drinking poisoned water after getting lost on the trail. Robert ended up in Nebraska with a Swede who came over on the Charlotta.
After four years, Robert returns to Karl Oskar's and Kristina's farm. He has Arvid's watch and a sum of money which he gives to his brother. Karl Oskar is suspicious. Did he find gold? Where is Arvid? Robert has changed. His health is gone, and he is disillusioned. He sees the folly of gold fever.
As it happened, Robert was swindled. The Swede from the ship traded him wildcat money for gold given to him by a dying Mexican. When Karl Oskar finds the bills are worthless, he hits his brother in the face. Broken, Robert wanders into the forest and dies. The pessimism of this episode is disturbing. We feel the tenuous nature of life and the ease with which men can be led astray.
The Settlers goes through 1860 as Minnesota attains statehood. Kristina resigns herself to life in America.
THE LAST LETTER HOME by Vilhelm Moberg
When the Civil War begins, Karl Oskar tries to join the Union army. He is rejected because of a bad leg. Kristina is relieved as she opposes war in general.
It is the Sioux uprising which threatens the settlers of Minnesota. Danjel and his oldest son fall victim to their savagery.
The final book is fatalistic. Moberg takes Karl Oskar and Kristina to the end of their lives. Kristina dies after a miscarriage. A doctor had told her no more pregnancies, and Karl Oskar and Ulrika have bitter words about it.
Karl Oskar's loss causes him to retreat within himself. He raises four sons and two daughters alone. Old age follows. So do grandchildren. The Swedish settlers begin to lose their character, intermarrying to create a race of Americans. Melting pot!
I hear the strains of Like An Angel Passing Through My Room as Karl Oskar, recalling his past, awaits death. The last letter to Sweden, written by a neighbor, informs Karl Oskar's sister of his death in 1890 at age 67. The series spans 46 years.