We asked Larsmo more about his research and inspiration for this work set in an actual neighborhood.
Rosemary Jones: What inspired you to begin the novel in 1897 with a fire at Ellis Island? Was this an actual event?
Well, 1897 is a special year. Among other things, there was this huge, record-breaking exhibition in Stockholm, an industrial fair showing all the scientific and economic breakthroughs of the times (I had used that fair as setting in a previous novel). At the same time, emigration from Sweden rose to a new high. Very confusing times.
The fire in Ellis Island was real. The authorities had built a wooden structure on the Island. You can see it in old pictures and newspaper clippings. As my character Inga points out, it looks very much like an old cold-water swimming hall. That hall burned to the ground in 1897. No one died or was hurt, which was a miracle. I couldn't miss using that in the novel—my characters really got a baptism by fire when they arrive in their new country.
Soon after the fire, the construction began of the more permanent, castle-looking complex on Ellis Island, which still is standing and is a fascinating museum today.
While researching the lives of Swedish-American immigrants in the 1890s, what led you to concentrate on St. Paul, Minnesota?
We happened upon Swede Hollow by pure chance—if you believe in chance and serendipity. My wife Rita had spent a year in Minneapolis as an exchange student in the 1970s. When we went there to visit her friends, we stumbled upon this small exhibition in the American-Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. I was totally dumbstruck by all the aspects of Swedish immigration to the States that had been lost. That is what always fascinates me as a writer—the blank spaces in history, the forgotten stories—here was this place, a today deserted ravine in the middle of St Paul, that once had been a village with 700 to 1000 inhabitants—Swedish, Irish, Italian, Polish, and, at the very end, Mexican—and today you can't even tell that people used to live there. Had it been edited out, or just forgotten, since there was so little there to be proud of? The silence in the Hollow itself is of a very special nature—as I write in the novel, it is like a veil over lives and stories, spread so thin that it will burst if you touch it. And all these lives come tumbling out. How can you not be fascinated by a place like that?
Which part of this historical research fascinated you the most?
That there were 1.3 million Swedes that emigrated between 1850 and 1914, somewhere between 20% and 25% of the total population, depending on how you count. That means that there are 1.3 million different stories. And we have heard so few of them. It goes without saying that people would end up in very different circumstances, lead very different lives—some full of success, some very tragic. It is so easy to focus on the ones that did well—that kind of story is, of course, encouraging. But aren't all these people part of American and Swedish history?
Yes, you wrote about your grandfather's brother, Carl Emanuel, for the Museum’s magazine. He lost everything during the Depression and died destitute in Seattle in 1940. Was that the type of history that you were thinking about?
And then there was the fact that everyone seems to think that the Hollow was a sort of "passing through station," where people lived for a few years and then got "up on the street," as people in the Hollow talked about the kind of life they wanted to live. That was true for some, but research shows that the Swedish presence was strong well into the 1910s and beyond. In fact, we do not know when the last Swedes (or Italians, or Irish) actually left the Hollow. Some families seem to have lived there for two or even three generations.
But you did get to tell their story in Swede Hollow.
My book is a novel, not an ethnographic study. It is a work of imagination, of fiction. I do believe that is one of the very few ways we have to get really close to other people's lives, including lives very different from our own. That, in turn, makes us grow. Above all, I was fascinated by what time itself does to people, what it does to places. In the novel, you get to follow the same place over 90 years, and to see people move on, rise, or being crushed by intolerable circumstances. But I do think it ends on a hopeful note.
How do you think the lives of your characters reflect the issues surrounding immigration today?
I did not set out to write some sort of allegorical novel, putting "now" next to "then." In fact, I don't like that kind of novel very much. (There are good exceptions, like Orwell's Animal Farm.) I was fascinated by the place and the time. But once you start to see clear parallels, it would be untrue and childish to avoid them. Then is not now, but you can see similarities. For example, when a very large group of Swedes show up in the 1880s, don't speak the language, take the most unqualified jobs and end up living in the worst neighborhoods—then they get a certain reputation of being stupid, unwashed, criminal and so on. You can read some terrible articles in the local press in the 1880s, that really paints the Swedish inhabitants of the Hollow in the darkest colors possible. Ten years later the Swedes are still being portrayed as ignorant in the same newspapers, since they can't speak English very well—but you can hire them, they are reliable workers, and so on. Nothing has really changed in the neighborhood except for the fact that a lot of Italians have moved in, and now they are considered to the criminal, unhygienic ones. Ten years further on, at the turn of the century, the Italians start to get credit for their good food, for being the descendants of Rome and so on—while the newly arrived Poles are looked down upon. And so on and so forth. It is like seeing an enormous machine at work, where you put huge groups of people in at the bottom and the only way to rise is to get yet another group shoved in beneath you—that machine, I think, is still at work as we speak.
What is your next novel project?
I can't really stay away from immigrant stories—as I said, many stories remain to be told—and now I am exploring the life of a poor guy born in my home town of Uppsala in the 1830s, who emigrated in the 1850s, watched his wife die on the boat and his small daughter pass away in the slums of New York. He joined the Union army during the Civil War, where he rose to the rank of Colonel and was wounded twice. This guy was a strong abolitionist and joined the war for idealistic reasons. He was also a very religious man. I really want to explore this fascinating and rather tragic life. It is not so well known that more than 2,000 Swedes fought in the Civil War. There you go, it is the untold stories that are the most fascinating!
Ola Larsmo will speak about his research for Swede Hollow at the National Nordic Museum on October 6, 2pm-3pm. Advance tickets and copies of his book are available here. Additional copies will be available in the Museum’s store.
Rosemary Jones writes about arts and culture in Seattle. Her articles have appeared in Encore Spotlight, Cornish Magazine, Examiner.com, Capitol Hill Times, and others. She is the Director of Marketing at the National Nordic Museum.