Here and There

by Elder M. Lindahl

During the years 1845-1930, 1.2 million Swedes, 25% of the Swedish population, emigrated to North America. This mass exodus, fueled by social discontent, poor crops, religious persecution, land fever, and new opportunities, split the country into two distinct groups–(A) Swedes who stayed, and (B) Swedes who left to become assimilated into an alien culture. America-fever tore families apart geographically and emotionally. In this essay, I am interested in the various ways those in Group B adapted, or failed to adapt, as they settled in as immigrants. What was it like to exist “emellan,” (in between) the “there” of the old country and the “here” of the new? That question has relevance for emigrants from all countries to this day.

In what follows, I illustrate the issue by telling some immigrant stories, rather than by assembling charts or formulating an abstract theory. Immigrant stories always involve both there and here aspects. Sometimes the pull of the old country is stronger than the attraction of the here, and the immigrant never does feel at home. Estimates are that some 20-25% of all emigrants returned to live in Sweden. Sometimes the scene of the old world fades, and immigrants really come to feel at home in their adoptive land.

I’d like to tell you about the situations of several immigrants: Josef Johansson, Anna Larson, Albert Carlson, Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, Carl Gunnar Johnson, Solveig Pfeiffer, and Tommy Carlson. All their stories illustrate, to one extent or another, what I’ll call the emellan tension.

Josef Johansson, born in 1909 in Kättetorp, Sweden, settled in Seattle, Washington in 1929. “We believed we would become rich, but it didn’t go that way for many.”(1) Hoover was President, it was the depression, and Josef had to take various jobs to make a living. “In the beginning, one had to work hard to survive.” He picked fruit in the Yakima valley for $.15 an hour, worked in a sawmill, on the railroad, and in the logging camps around Seattle.

“As a woodcutter, the food was good, but that was the only place it was good….Many had it so bad, and were so lonely, that they took their own lives....I believe we would have had it better had we stayed in Sweden.” America is not the place for poor people. Like many of his friends, Josef was lonely and drank too much. He never married, nor as far as I can tell, had anything to do with the church. He spoke, he admits, neither good English nor Swedish. In his later years, he longed to return home, but his wealthy sister wrote to him discouragingly: “Don’t come home, you old man.” Broke and weary, Josef reflects, “It just doesn’t look right to come back home to Sweden poor.”

Anna Larson was born in 1867 in Borlänge, Sweden.(2) She worked as a young girl in Fru Setterlund’s bakery. Anna was a capable young woman who could weave, bake, and fix up a house. One day, an older man, Nels Lindman, a widower with three children, came into the bakery. Nels was a tailor by trade. In time, he proposed to Anna, and though she was only 18 at the time, she thought it over and decided to marry him and accept responsibility for his three children. Anna and Nels had a son of their own when she was 20. Times were very hard in Sweden and they decided that Nels should go to America to find better work possibilities. He went first to Chicago, then Sterling, Illinois, St. Paul, Minnesota and finally bought a house in Mankato, Minnesota. Anna came later with the four children. She helped him tailor and sew. The church was always an important part of their life together. In time, Anna was responsible for seven children–Nels’ three plus the four born to them. Life in the States was not easy for the young transplanted couple. The following scene shows the kind of person Anna was:

....Anna was trudging up the hill from work one afternoon when she was met by a running, excited little Eddy (her son) who told her to hurry because Bossy (their cow) had hanged herself. She ran to where the cow had been staked out near a ravine. She was horrified to find that Eddy was right, and she told him to get her a butcher knife from the kitchen as quickly as he could so that she could cut the rope....Anna cut the rope and the cow rolled to the bottom of the embankment where it had been hanging. She tried to give it artificial respiration using her hands and arms but soon found that she lacked the strength to make much of an impact. She prayed for help while she worked as Bossy meant so much to them all. The answer came in the most unusual way. She thought she heard the Lord telling her to jump on the cow. That made sense as her whole body weight would do more than just her arms. So she climbed up on the prostrate cow and started to jump up and down. She thought she heard air going in and out, and soon heard a snort as the cow began breathing again. When Bossy raised her head to see what was going on, she had the presence of mind to jump off so the cow could get up. Little Eddy’s expression had turned from fear to relief, and finally he flashed his Mamma a big grin. Anna smiled back at him and thanked him for coming for her when he discovered Bossy....Again she lifted her eyes and said, “Tack, käre Gud!” to the Lord who was always there. (P. 105)

Nels died in 1895 and one of the children they had together, Esther, died the next year. As the years passed, Anna married another immigrant, John Asplund, a younger man who was a successful cement worker and contractor. He built a large home for them in Mankato, Minnesota. After a huge business loss, they moved to Spokane, Washington and then east of Los Angeles, California, for better work. In 1912, the entire family made their way by wagon through the rugged mountains north to Kingsburg, California, where John bought 12 acres of land on the Kings River. He and Anna had five children of their own, making a total of 12 children. John died in 1940 and Anna lived the rest of her 90 years in a little house in Kingsburg. Several of her children and step children died before she did. Anna was a member of the Swedish Colony church for 30 years before joining the Covenant church in town. According to her daughter, Sylvia, Anna had loving children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and many good friends who came to visit. Though she missed her parents, family, and former life in Sweden, Dalkulla Anna was an adventurous pioneer who never really looked back.

Albert Carlson, Moberg’s fictional character, was born in Sjöhults parish in Sweden. He lived alone at the end of his life in the Eden Hotel in Laguna Beach, California. Retired from a successful business in real estate, Albert prepared to close the books on his life. Room twenty, between the Pacific ocean and Cleo Street, has become, he says, his home on earth. The two windows in his room look out on the Ocean and the busy street. “Traffic noise and ocean roar co-mingle in my ears.” He has lived more than forty of his sixty-four years in North America. Though he visited his home district in Sweden only twice during this time, he returns often in his thoughts. Watching the roaring ocean, he recalls the murmuring brook back home where he and his older brother, Sigfrid, used to fish. He has moved many times and built many dwellings, but he has no home. Though he lives in wonderful Southern California, where the weather, sun, wind, and the ocean temperature are just right, (Lagom, in Swedish), he is depressed. He writes to his family, but they rarely answer. Desperate, he concludes that the ultimate answer to his hopeless life lies in the ocean. “To give in and await the wave that will carry me back.” Albert felt at home in neither Sweden nor America.

Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson–fictional emigrants from Smäland who settle in Chisago County, Minnesota–represent the emellan tension of every Swedish immigrant couple. The emigrant couple he creates–statues of them stand near the harbor in Karlshamn, Sweden–dramatize the hopes and dreams of immigrants everywhere. Karl Oskar, as you remember, looks out with steadfast determination to the ocean and the New Land beyond, while Kristina, head turned toward the old country, is apprehensive.(3) Her right hand touches Karl’s arm, but the arch of her upper body and her veiled countenance shows the tension of a final departure. Nonetheless, she is at his side in the new adventure. In time, they find good farm land in Minnesota. Both Karl Oskar’s optimism about their future in the States and Kristina’s homesickness for her beloved Smäland hold firm to the end. Karl Oskar lives here, the push of the old and the pull of the new are strong for him. Kristina, as the following quotation indicates, lives emellan, never overcoming completely the strong pull of the there.

Now they were at last settled, now they would stay here forever, at home on Lake Ki-Chi-Saga, as Karl Oskar put it. So strange it sounded, to have her home linked to that name. She was to be at home here for the rest of her life–but she wasn’t at home. This house was her home, but it was so far away….
Here was away for Kristina–Sweden was home. It ought to be just the opposite; the two places should change position. She had moved, but she could not make the two countries move, the countries lay where they had lain before–one had always to her been away, the other would always remain home.
And she knew for sure now, she had to admit it to herself: in her heart she felt she was still on a journey; she had gone away but hoped to return.
Home–to Kristina, this encompassed all that she was never to see again.(4)

Carl Gunnar Johnson, my father-in-law, was born in Trensum, Blekinge in 1893, and emigrated as a 17 year-old sailor in 1910. He worked first on a farm in South Dakota and then moved to Chicago. Though he made up his mind from the first that America was his country, he struggled emellan. Gunnar was so lonesome for his people and native country when he first came that he couldn’t go to the shore of Lake Michigan for some time because it brought back childhood memories of the shore of the Baltic near Mätvik in Blekinge. Gunnar served in the US Army in WW I and was always patriotic. He worked as a piano maker for Newman Brothers and then as a mechanical engineer for Seeburgs in Chicago. In 1920, he married Judith Erickson and they had three children. When his younger brother, Sven, wanted to come to America, Gunnar wrote and told him he should stay in Sweden. “It’s too hard here.” One day, Sven showed up on Gunnar’s doorstep. Sven stayed, married Hildur, and raised a family. Both families were part of the pietistic settlement in Chicago–at Cuyler Covenant and Portage Park Covenant. Gunnar returned to Sweden several times, but it was always “going back there.” America was home–he and Sven created close family over here. They and their wives also kept contact with family over there.

Solveig Pfeiffer, born in 1944 in Härnösand, Sweden, came from a large, closely-knit family. In 1967, she took a job at the Swedish embassy in Washington, DC where she met her American husband. They married and had two boys. About 5 years later they separated. In time, Solveig became disillusioned with life here and wanted desperately to move back home. Her two boys, 10 and 15 at the time, didn’t know Swedish and their friends were all in America. Taking them back to Sweden, she muses, would be like kidnaping them. “Thanks to them I have the strength to deal with all the trouble I have here.” Solveig awakened every morning with a sense of angst. Talking Swedish to someone calmed her down. She feels everything here is connected with sex. Women are treated like sex objects. Even English-language swearing always deals with sex. The time her father died in Sweden, a medical doctor treated Solveig for chest pains. He called her at home a few days after her appointment and came over with some whiskey. “I told him to go,” she says. When she meets other Swedes on Mercer Island they talk about how well they are getting along in America. Sure, married to rich Americans, they should be able to get along nicely anywhere, Solveig imagines. “Everything is so restless here, so superficial, people must be doing something every minute. I don’t like that my boys will be influenced by this life style, but I think it’s probably too late.” Sundays are spent at home with the two boys, making popcorn, lying on the floor watching TV. “My best friends are Austrians, Norwegians, and Spaniards. I don’t feel at home with Americans.”

Tommy Carlson, well-known Waldenström commentator, born in Ockelbo, Sweden, in 1938, emigrated to America with his parents in 1954. As he wrote in his article, “Going Home,” in the Fall, 1997 issue of Pietisten, the little village of Ockelbo is his special place, the spot that renews his spirit.

It is more than the place where we were born and grew up, more than friends and family, more than beautiful landscape, and more than its history....This is where my roots are, and they go deep into the soil which my morfar’s family settled sometime in the 1590s.

Tommy is an immigrant who lives emellam. He has settled in, become a husband and father, worked hard in several jobs, been a faithful son to his immigrant parents, has many friends, and yet, when he talks about Ockelbo, which is often, a certain sparkle comes to his eyes, a special tone to his words, and a luster to his smile. For all his success and continued residency here, home is mostly there.

These stories illustrate the struggle and tension all emigrants face. Obviously, this issue is much wider than Swedish emigration. America is a nation of emigrants, a country made up of many ethnic groups–Italian, Hmong, Mexican, African, German, Chinese, Irish and so on. In each case, there is a group which remains in the old country as well as a group which leaves and has to adapt somehow to an unfamiliar place, a new culture, and foreign people. Living between the here and the there is for immigrants the primary experience. They try to attain a sense of belonging and family in the new setting through the church as well as in ethnic clubs and other organizations. But not all are successful in the search for meaning in the new world. For those of us who look in from the outside, we will be able to understand and emphasize with them as we focus our attention on their lives emellan.

note1. 1. Quotations that follow in some of these accounts are my translations of Göran Stockenström, Readings in Swedish, Minneapolis: Department of Independent Study, 1993. They came originally from Anders Johansson, Amerika: Dröm Eller Mardröm?

note2. 2. A daughter, Sylvia Asplund Cleeland tells the whole story in a delightful book, Dalkulla Anna, A Swedish Maid from Dalarna, Honolulu: Fisher Printing, 1984.

note3. 3. A replica can be seen in Lindström, Minnesota. Moberg, whose 100th birth anniversary we celebrate in 1998, is well-known for his four classic novels–The Emigrants, Unto a New Land, The Settlers, and Last Letter Home.

note4. 4. Vilhelm Moberg, Unto A Good Land, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1952, 1995, p. 248.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl