BY OLA LARSMO
I guess it was the silence that caught my imagination. It was very deep, in the middle of a bustling city.
My wife, Rita, had spent an important year as an exchange student in Minneapolis and wanted to visit old friends. When we first went there in 2006, I knew that I was in for quite a ride. The stories from the Swedish mass migration in the 1850s up to World War I has left a huge mark in Swedish collective consciousness – one that was given a distinct form by the classic suite of novels by Vilhelm Moberg, The Emigrants (1949) and the three sequels, books that are still widely circulated and have sold more than one million copies. The success of Moberg’s novels was very well-deserved – but they also shaped the picture of the Swedish emigrant as the hard-working, stubborn, and eventually successful farmer on the prairie or in the Minnesota forest.
To begin with, we traveled in Moberg’s footsteps. The memory of his stories and his real-life models is still strong, and it felt almost safe, in a way – the story of Swedish migration contained no surprises.
Until we visited American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, then as now the natural meeting place for people with an interest in Swedes in Minnesota. I went upstairs in the Turnblad Mansion and into one of the side rooms, and noted that it hosted a somewhat faded exhibition about a place called “Swede Hollow.” Photos were pinned to cardboard with short texts. A small monitor showed a short PBS documentary. That was it.
When my family came to get me, 45 minutes or so later, they almost had to drag me out of the room. And after that short visit, questions gnawed at the back of my head. Why hadn’t I heard about this aspect of Swedish history before? Why had this been edited out? And had it really? Since that visit to Minnesota in 2006 I have written three other books. But I knew I had to return to Swede Hollow.
I can’t claim to be one of those writers who have a “method.” The best advice I ever got was from a student – not a teacher – at a creative writing class: “follow your fascination.” What always have fascinated me are the “blank spots” in history. Most of my novels tend to explore things we have forgotten, actively or not, in history. As soon as you find one of those blank spots you know that you have found a very good story, and that some people will be very annoyed if you try to explore it. But Swede Hollow more or less sucked me in. We went back to the Twin Cities a number of times, and I learnt to love that part of the States. We spent hours and hours in the archives at Minnesota Historical Society (thanks to everyone there for all the help!). I talked to other writers and historians and looked into church archives and hospital records. But the people of Swede Hollow remained . . . elusive.
The place itself is magnificent: a ravine between Minnehaha Avenue and Seventh Street in St. Paul, today a park and seemingly untouched by humans. The first time we ventured down the tunnel from Drewry Street, we even disturbed a pair of grazing deer. If you are unfamiliar with the place you might believe that it is a piece of forest that graciously was left behind when the city first was planned. But a hundred years ago it was a shanty town and home to 700 (or perhaps even as many as as 1,000; the numbers differ) inhabitants. None of this can be seen today, unless you know exactly where to look.
The ravine was created by a glacier river that cut a path through the landscape. At first it was inhabited by the Irishman Edward Phelan, who went west in the 1840s to avoid a trial and was killed on his way to California. But rather soon after that the place was called Swede Hollow, showing an early Swedish presence. Perhaps not very hard to understand: the river boats put immigrants ashore not far from the Hollow.
You can go to the census records, of course, and find lists of names, but they are very ordinary Swedish names like Pettersson and Andersson, the kind of name that indicates an ordinary, working class or rural background. And everyone gives their birth place as “Sweden,” not giving you many clues to their place of origin. The church records in St. Paul’s First Lutheran (previously First Swedish Lutheran) give a few more clues. But not many. Infant mortality was high. The men worked mostly at the railroads, at walking distance from the Hollow. Women, the ones who had work away from home, are often seamstresses. To get closer to their reality, their lives, you have to dig deep.
But the census records decisively show you one thing: the Swedish and Scandinavian presence was high for a long time. Swede Hollow is also home to a large Irish community down in Connemara Patch, as well as to a large group of Italians; Mike Sanchelli, who grew up there around the last turn of the century, has written a moving account of his childhood. But it has been thought that Swede Hollow was a sort of “passing through” station for immigrants who later went on to better lives “up on the street,” as people in the Hollow said. And that is true for a great number of people. But it is also true that the Swedish presence in the Hollow was a large one up through the 1900s and 1910s; that much can be learnt from the census records. When the last Swedes, Irish, and Italians left, we do not know. When the place was deemed as “unsanitary” and was torched by the St. Paul fire brigade in 1956, the last inhabitants were a group of Mexican families, who still celebrate their background in the Hollow. But very few Swedish families seem to have kept their stories from the Hollow alive.
I think that is what we have fiction for: to listen to voices that can’t be heard. Fiction is a sort of research, too; if you remember that you sometimes leave solid facts behind and venture out over an abyss on the rope bridge of imagination. Fiction is the only way in which we can live someone else’s life, or several lives at the same time, without being mentally unbalanced. We leave our ordinary tools for measuring the world behind for a while – to understand something, to learn something that we cannot get hold of in any other way. We follow our fascination.
My novel Swede Hollow is just that: a novel. None of the protagonists –with one or two exceptions – have existed for real. To get closer to the lives lived in the Hollow we have to use that rope bridge, to imagine that we are there. I have tried to get all the facts straight, and spent some wonderful weeks doing hard research. I made new friends on the way. But much has to be imagined. And part of the fascination is to see how close you can get to nameless people who lived long ago, but here. How much of this understanding that is pure conjecture we might never know. But I certainly feel that I have been there.
Last time we visited the Hollow it was winter, and one of the people in the small group was the composer Ann Millikan, who has written an opera about emigrant life in the Hollow. We stopped under the railway arches at the bottom of the ravine, and Ann said: Can you hear the silence? We listened. She was right. Seventh Street ran across the bridge overhead, but very little of the noise reached us. I promise you that I am not a very superstitious person, but as we stood there, a wind moved through the bushes on the slope. It almost sounded like whispers. In Swedish.
Ola Larsmo is a critic and columnist for Sweden’s largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, and the author of nine novels and several collections of short stories and essays. He received the Bjørnson Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Literature and Freedom of Expression and, after the publication of Swede Hollow, two prestigious Swedish awards: the Lagercrantz Critics’ Prize from Dagens Nyheter and Natur & Kultur’s cultural prize. He was president of PEN Sweden from 2009 to 2017 and editor of Bonniers Literary Magazine from 1984 to 1990.
Larsmo will be in the US on tour for Swede Hollow. Find a full list of events.