Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Recommended Read - The Boat of Longing by O. E. Rolvaag

Recommended Read – The Boat of Longing
by O. E. Rolvaag
translated by Nora Solum
Norwegian publication, 1923; English publication by Harper and Brothers, 1933; republished by Minnesota Historical Society, 1985
Fiction, 303 pages

While roaming the stacks of our local library, I chanced on the works of O. E. Rolvaag (1876–1931). Rolvaag the writer was an icon in my home as a child, and I was pleased that this library established by people of Norwegian and German descent offered his work. What surprised me, however, was a titled I’d never encountered: The Boat of Longing.

A bit of background: Rolvaag was born on an island in the Nordland or Northland of Norway, approximately five miles south of the Arctic Circle. He emigrated from Norway to America in 1896 and initially worked as a farm hand in South Dakota. After completing his education, he became a professor of Norwegian literature at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Rolvaag’s novels explore the experience of Norwegian-American immigrants in America. Written in the Norwegian language, they were initially published in Norway. After being translated into English, second- and third-generation Norwegian-Americans became Rolvaag’s second audience.

Most discussions on Rolvaag focus on his trilogy, Giants in the Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Father’s God. I recommend them, too—especially Giants in the Earth.

But The Boat of Longing is unique. It’s tragic, painful, poignant, beautiful. And poetic.

The story opens in Nordland with the ever-present ocean: a world of both the midnight sun and total darkness, a world of folklore including a strange boat that is often seen by people as a harbinger of impending death, and a world where a strange but beautiful young woman is washed ashore one day and taken into the family because she has nowhere else to go.

Nils, the only child of Jo and Anna is enchanted by the girl. When her identity is discovered and she returns to her family, he is lost. Over time, his idealism and undefined longings, along with the encouragement of a neighbor, play on his imaginations until he leaves for fabled America.

In the second and third sections, after a long ride on a boat of longing in the form of a ship, Nils is unsettled by his life in urban Minneapolis. It’s a city of confusion where people speak many languages and he’s assaulted on every side. Not wanting to disappoint his parents, he gives accounts of only good things when he writes home.

Life improves somewhat when he meets a Norwegian-American widow who lives in a meager dwelling under the Washington Avenue Bridge. She bequeaths her husband’s violin to Nils—her only beloved possession—because he captures the homeland when he makes music with it.

When Nils loses the violin in a train depot, he can no longer express himself. That loss and another tragic event overwhelm him. Feeling like a failure, he becomes a vagabond, and he stops writing to Jo and Anna altogether.

The fourth section returns to Norway to focus on the hurting parents who worry about their son. Again, the poetry is breath-taking, a stark contrast to the American city. His father Jo eventually makes a trip to America in another ship to find his son—but is rejected by immigration officials. As he stares at the Atlantic coast, unable to deal with his loss, he imagines what could be true.

When Jo arrives home, he tells Anna tales of wonders in America: And in that marble palace you and I are to live with him . . . But I’ll have to explain that to you some other day, for now I want to go out on the sea!

In his familiar boat on the familiar sea, he spies the fabled, dancing boat of longing. Going after it he rows and rows and rows. His boat is never found.

Even with this synopsis, you will not be disappointed if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on a copy of this book. Details are stunning. Long out of print, it’s only available in libraries or through a channel offering used books. I checked, and it can be purchased through Amazon.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products,or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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