Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So how come a Norwegian-American sleuth anyhow?

So how come a Norwegian-American sleuth anyhow?
Minnesota has long been associated with Scandinavian culture. For those not of this culture, this may seem overblown. It is true that Scandinavians have had a disproportionate influence on the state, as indicated that from the 1880s to the 1990s, Rudy Perpich was the only governor who was not at least partially of Scandinavian descent. In my home town, the percentages were rather like this: Norwegian, 70%, Swedish, 29%, and the Meyers. By 1900, the second largest Swedish urban settlement in the world after Stockholm was Minneapolis/St.Paul, with Chicago a close third. Only Oslo had more Norwegians than the Twin Cities, and Fargo was probably in the top ten Norwegian cities in the world. Because of the transient nature of immigration, these population figures are, of course, estimates. It was said, without too much hyperbole, that by 1910, one could walk from the Red River Valley of Minnesota to eastern Montana stepping only on land owned by Norwegians. The Irish claim the largest percentage of citizens who came to America, but the Norwegians were second and the Swedes were third.
I am a product of Scandinavian Minnesota, although as a Swede I was a pathetic minority in my home community. Of course, as children we were not aware of any difference, but I do remember my mother commenting on some transgression of a neighbor and forgiving him with kind “Oh, well, he’s Norwegian, you know.” My parents spoke Swedish at home only when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. “Minnesota Svensk” became, at least in some areas, a rather unique hybrid language. I recall my parents arguing: “That’s Norwegian, isn’t it? No, I think that’s Swedish.” Some of the words I thought I had learned from them turned out to be neither. Palmer Knutson, of the Otter Tail mystery series, is of the same age and heritage as I am (what an odd coincidence). He knows a little Norwegian, can speak in a brogue when he wants to, and understands rural life. His home town, Fergus Falls, was part of the “Park Region,” a secondary settlement of Norwegians, made up of sons or younger brothers of the earlier settlement near Decorah, Iowa, who took homestead lands in the 1870s. Scandinavians were among the more assimilable immigrants – white, protestant, not prone to civil disorder – who were generally welcomed and were courted by land agents representing the railroads. In keeping with the Lutheran theology of sola scriptura, they were also almost entirely literate. And this is what Palmer is – better read than most, possessing a good education, Lutheran, and a man who enjoys his lefse. Unlike the dour Scandinavians of Europe, however, he has a sense of humor.
I enjoy reading mystery novels set in different parts of the world. I would guess some of the people who will read this have read the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo which were set in Stockholm. A more modern series, the Kurt Wallender books of Henning Mankell, are set in Southern Sweden. Swell books, but not a barrel of laughs. I have also read three or four Norwegian mystery novels. As we say, Uffda! They are well written, but as cheery as a steady diet of Knut Hamsun. They are just the kind of novels that can prepare one for suicide! I didn’t want some ultra introspective sleuth dissecting world conditions, I wanted a cop who could catch a killer. Now, as we all know, only the English can find real humor in homicide (witness the Charles Paris books of Simon Brett), but if I can lighten up a Norwegian character, I will have performed a service for which I should be knighted by the king.


G.M. Malliet said...

Gerald - nice post. I am reminded that one of the joys of reading mysteries is that you can learn a lot in an entertaining way, especially about different cultures.

Joe Moore said...

Hi Gerald. I can't recall reading a book with a Swedish main character, but I did go to Stockholm once in the middle of January. As I stood overlooking the harbor I commented to my Swedish associate that it was the coldest I've ever been. He said, "See the icebreakers down there? When they leave the harbor then you know it's going to get really cold."

I went back and sat in the car with the heater turned on high.

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Who would have guessed that a sleuth from Botswana would become an international favorite. Look at the success of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency.

I say go with your Scandinavian sleuth. The world is waiting.

Paul Lamb

Keith Raffel said...

Nice post, Jerry. Which king do you deserve to be knighted by, Sweden or Norway? If it takes long enough, maybe you'll be knighted by a queen (the heir apparent to the Swedish crown is a woman.)

Felicia Donovan said...

Wow, Gerald, I learned an awful lot from your post.

A character's cultural background is just one more layer that can give depth to a story. It's the icing on the chocolate cake (and that was for Keith).

Seriously, your blending of regionalism and characterization sounds intriguing.