cover of book

In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants
by Solveig Zempel
University of Minnesota Press, 1991
Paper: 978-0-8166-1859-0
Library of Congress Classification E184.S2I5 1990
Dewey Decimal Classification 305.839820730903

For most Norwegians in the nineteenth century, America was a remote and exotic place until the first immigrants began to write home. Their letters were among the most valuable, accessible, and reliable sources of information about the new world and the journey to it. For many immigrants, writing letters home was their most cherished opportunity to communicate their thoughts and feelings in their native language.

Through vivid translations of letters written to family and friends between 1870 and 1945, In Their Own Words traces the stories of nine Norwegian immigrants: farmer, fisherman, gold miner, politician, unmarried mother, housewife, businessman, railroad worker, contractor. Their common bond was the experience of immigration and acculturation, but their individual experiences were manifested in a wide variety of forms.

Solveig Zempel has thoughtfully selected and translated letters rich in personal description and observation to present each writer's subjective view of historical events. Often focusing on the minutiae of daily life and the feelings of the individual immigrant, the letters form a complex, intimate, and colorful mosaic of the immigrant world.

"Zempel has done us a service by choosing letters that are, first of all, of interest in themselves and, second, that must make us think again about the broad brush with which we habitually paint immigrant life." Scandinavian Studies

"Zempel's letters cover a wide range of experiences from 1870 to 1945. In letters to family friends, nine immigrants ranging from a teacher to a railroad worker, an unmarried mother to a politician, recounted their experiences of immigration and community-building during a period of mass migration to this country. The letter writers corresponded from various regions, from both cities and farms about their successes in America; about such mundane matters as the weather, neighbors, and food; about their desire for Ibsen's new book or a visit home for Christmas. Such letters provide invaluable documentation of everyday life." The Annals of Iowa

"Zempel has performed a valuable service for students of American immigration history. This is an eminently readable, entertaining and excellent book. Zempel uses the letters of nine Norwegian immigrants found in archives from St. Paul, Minnesota to Stavanger, Bergen, and Kristiansand, Norway, to superbly depict not only their singular experiences of living, working, marrying, and raising a family but to also convey their sadness, loneliness, joy and hope." Journal of the West

"The variety and scope of the letters from America to Norway make for fascinating reading; they also provide informative insights into the minds and thoughts of new settlers on American soil. The reader will come away from this volume with a deepened awareness of the importance of 'America letters' in understanding the American experience. Readers will feel close to these writers, engaged as they are in private communications with family members and friends they left behind in the homeland." MELUS

"The variety of occupations, backgrounds, and experiences described in the letters make the book a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Norwegian immigrant experience. The thread that weaves all of the letters together is the reaction of each immigrant to his or her new environment." Journal of American Ethnic History

"These carefully selected letters are bountiful, alive, and touch upon historical events as well as the humdrum experiences of daily life. The insight gained from the accounts reveals valuable information about the new world." School Library Journal

Solveig Zempel is chair of the Norwegian Department at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota
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