Haymaker in Heaven by Edvard Hoem

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Dorothy recommended (and loaned me) this book and I thank her for it. It begins with the author explaining that Nesje, the haymaker, was his great-grandfather, born in 1838, and that though he heard many stories about Nesje and had some documents relating to his life, he would have to “invent him out of air and nothingness.” This he did, using “the light over Molde and Rekneslie, out of the wind that tousles my hair and the rain that falls over the fields and the people, both in his day and in mine.” Nesje stayed in Norway his whole life, while many we hear about who were closely related to him, migrated to South Dakota. Norwegians migrated to throughout the northern Midwest; I am especially aware of the history of Decorah, in nearby northeastern Iowa, where the largest Norwegian museum in the US is located (Vesterheim), and where there was a Norwegian language newspaper as late as 1972.

This is the story of hard-working people; Nesje was a dancer with a scythe and led the men cutting the hay each year. He felt he was different from those he shared the field with, but did not let that show. “They didn’t read books, didn’t go to the library, didn’t wash their hands before and after meals the way he, the son of a midwife, did. It was as if there were an invisible air of refinement about him.” Their village of Molde became something of a tourist destination in the mid-1880s, and on the day of its opening, Nesje and his wife Serianna stood outside the new Grand Hotel “with people of their class outside the fence.” They were very excited as they walked home, especially when they saw the famous author, Henrik Ibsen.

Serianna’s sister Gjertine marries the handsome Ole, after he abstains from jumping in the hay with others for two years. He is a harness maker and is always referred to as Ole the saddler. The farmers in the area were unable to afford new harnesses, and he couldn’t make a living repairing old ones. The story of their migration to South Dakota is told in detail, beginning with their journey by steamer first to Kristiansund, then Hull, by train to Liverpool, then across the Atlantic. In South Dakota for a time they were in Sisseton where Norwegians from their area, the Stavig family, were. I was excited to see on Google maps that one can visit the Andrew and Mary Stavig House.

Gjertine loved the South Dakota countryside:

From what she had read, Gjertine knew many people felt a chill in their hearts when they saw the vast magnificence of the prairie without any humanity, she was different. She was filled with a joy for which she had no words. It was like her prayer was answered. This was the country she had longed for, in all its glory. A country without government, where thousands of animals roamed. They would inhabit this world as if on its first day.

Another family member, Gjertine’s brother Ola and his family, make their way to the prairie and the sod house Ola creates for his family’s first winter there was described in detail. Back in Norway Nesje hits 50 and the limits of his strength are hinted at as one of his sons joins the other Norwegians in the migration. Letters mention that Gertine, that tower of strength, may be faltering.

The book ends, leaving me with questions: ¬†what happened with Nesje’s son Edvard who was “given” to Serianna’s brother? How did Nesje and Serianna manage in their old age? What was up with Gjeltine? It was a pleasure to hear about these people and read about traces of their existence, as well as speculation about who they were. In the author’s note he says he saw Gjeltine’s grave in Roslyn, South Dakota. The author conjured up rural Norway and the upper midwest of the US in the 1880s in a most pleasing way.

Edvard Hoem, Haymaker in Heaven, Milkweed Editions, 2022, 324 pages, trans. by Tara Chace.

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