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Swede Hollow Ola Larsmo, Swede Hollow

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2016.

Reviewed by Kate Lambert in SBR 2016:2

Review Section: Fiction - Adult

Swede Hollow is the name of a valley in St Paul, Minnesota, which in the late 19th century was the town’s slum, home to at least a thousand people living in tumbledown shacks. As its name suggests, many of them were Swedes, part of the huge Swedish migration famously described in Vilhem Moberg’s classic Utvandrarna quartet of novels. But unlike Moberg’s protagonists, Kristina (also the heroine of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ acclaimed musical of the same name) and Karl-Oskar, these emigrant Swedes are not determined, independent farmers and settlers, nor, like Karl-Oskar’s brother Robert, are they setting out to seek their fortunes in the California gold rush. Larsmo’s migrants are drawn from the urban working class and their fate in their new lives in America is to become the lowest of the low.

The book follows Gustaf and Anna Björn and their children Ellen, Elizabeth and Carl from the point at which they board the Majestic, a White Star Line vessel, in Liverpool in 1897. On board they meet a young girl called Inga, and the widow Mrs Lundgren with her silent son David. All three are headed for St Paul, while Gustaf, a shoemaker, is determined to try New York.

New York doesn’t serve them well. Gustaf treks across the city in the hope of casual work in the docks at the mercy of ruthless gangmasters, and the shoe factory is only hiring Germans. Anna and the children huddle in an attic room, their existence enlivened only by visits from Lieutenant Gustavson of the Salvation Army, who gets up a collection for their tickets to St Paul. While life may not be better there, at least it is home to other people they know from Sweden.

The book is not a cheerful read, but this was not a cheerful life. Life in Swede Hollow is unremittingly grim. Work is precarious and insecure. The polluted Phalen Creek runs through the valley bringing disease with it. Small Carl does not survive.

The chair of Swedish PEN, Ola Larsmo is a journalist with a keen interest in civil liberties, and Swede Hollow clearly sets out a swathe of injustices. Unionisation, and the blacklisting of those who protest against working conditions, is a recurring theme. Both David Lundgren, who came to America following his teenage sweetheart who has married a cruel and abusive man, and Elizabeth’s son, whose father vanished on the night of his birth following a forced marriage, are falsely imprisoned, the former for the murder of his lover’s husband, the latter for being involved in a horrific and graphically depicted lynching. Elizabeth loses her job in the sewing factory when, in her first week, she drives the machine’s needle through her hand. Industrial accidents abound, particularly on the railways, the main, unreliable, source of income for the men, and some are gruesomely fatal.

But there are some success stories. Inga scrimps and saves, forces the town clerks to explain the legal status of the shacks in Swede Hollow and buys her plot. Ellen is efficient and reliable as a seamstress, takes on the additional job of cleaning the factory, and uses the evenings in the empty building to sneak into the office and teach herself to type, after which she applies for a secretarial job in a bilingual law firm and ultimately marries the boss’s son. The marriage doesn’t sound particularly happy, but it is better than Swede Hollow.

The decades pass through the eyes of the different characters in turn. One quibble would be that their voices are not sufficiently differentiated. However, the passages that are examples of 19th- century journalism, showing how the Swedes were seen by the majority population of the time, are particularly powerful. In one the Swedish immigrants are exoticised as ‘flaxen-haired’, primitive and happy in their little valley. In another they are described as ‘the poor, always on the hunt for support [...] at the bottom of society’, living fifteen to a room, the children begging or stealing, the men swearing and drunk. Published at a time when migration is a hugely topical issue, this story has obvious but telling parallels with today. Over a century later, only the nationalities have changed.

Also by Ola Larsmo

  • Förrädare (Traitors). Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2013:2.
  • Jag vill inte tjäna (I Do Not Wish to Serve). Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2009:2.
  • Maroonberget (Maroon Mountain). Reviewed by Peter Hogg in SBR 1997:1.

Other reviews by Kate Lambert

Other reviews in SBR 2016:2

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