Swede Hollow by Ola Larsmo, translated by Tiina Nunnally, is a family saga that follows Gustaf and Anna Klar and their three children from Sweden to New York and eventually to Swede Hollow in St. Paul in the early twentieth century.
Gustaf and Anna leave Sweden in 1897 under a shroud of fog and a devastating secret. As their ship pulls in to Ellis Island, Anna grabs her daughters’ hands and rushes to the rail to see the Statue of Liberty.
“She had thought the statue would be white, but Lady Liberty was a green hue that reminded her of an old two-ore coin, the way it might look when emerging from the melting ice on the street in the springtime.”
Not the image of a bright shiny future that Anna had envisioned. Worse, that night their dreams are nearly dashed when a fire erupts on the island and the family narrowly escapes from the dorms where the immigrants are housed until they can be dispatched to other locations.
Once settled in New York, Gustaf is unable to secure a job to support his family, so eventually the family moves to the Midwest and a place called Swede Hollow. The Hollow is nothing more than a cluster of shacks in a ravine on the edge of St. Paul, Minnesota populated by Irish, Italian, and Swedish immigrants who mostly keep to themselves, although the occasional fight will break out when someone has too much to drink, or one group disparages another. Most of the men work for the railroads and the women clean houses, or work at laundries or in factories. The living conditions in the Hollow are unsanitary and the immigrants are subject to widespread discrimination. But the Klar family has many friends from the Old Country there and they help each other out.
The Klar daughters, Ellen and Elisabet find work cleaning houses, through a referral from their good neighbor, Inga, who is a font of knowledge on nearly every subject. Though Gustaf hoped to find work as a shoemaker, his trade in Sweden, those factories will only hire Germans. Elisabet loses her job at the sewing factory when her hand is injured and fires abound in factories with shoddy ventilation – a true history of factory life in the early twentieth century before the establishment of OSHA and labor unions. Ellen is the only family member who rises out of poverty and leaves the Hollow. She teaches herself to type after hours in the factory and gets a job as a typist and translator at a law firm, eventually marrying the owner’s son.
Swede Hollow is bleak, but an accurate account of the immigrant experience. It takes many generations for the Klar family to realize the “American Dream” but at the end of the novel, an unnamed descendent returns to the place his ancestors had called their home, the Hollow.
“Nowhere in the Hollow was there any remaining trace of human habitation.” But he clears his throat and shouts into the ravine, “Ancestors of mine! I’m here to tell you something important: I want you to know that Judy and I are going to have our first child in September . . . and we want you to know . . that without you we wouldn’t be here.”
Indeed, without them — the immigrants, the exiles, the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free – none of us non-native Americans would be here.
I recommend Swede Hollow for fans of O.E. Rollvaag’s Giants in the Earth, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.