Giving Life to an Immigrant Story through Letters, Reports, and Oral History
I’ve often wondered what it was like for my grandparents who emigrated from Norway to America in 1956. They were 39 and 40, with child in tow and no command of the English language. What was it like to leave house and home, country and family? They, like the title character in Kristine, Finding Home: Norway to America by Aleta Chossek, left as adults with a child in tow. They, like Kristine, intended to return to Norway after a period of time. They, like Kristine, never moved back. Although much is different between my grandparents’ experience and that of this woman and her family, I appreciated this glimpse into her story, knowing that there is something universal about being human and the way we experience life. Even though I’ll never know much about what it was like for my grandparents to leave Norway, reading Kristine’s story—as written by her granddaughter based on letters, reports, and oral history—expands my understanding of an experience that I’ve never had, and helps me to perhaps understand my grandparents more as well.
In Kristine, Finding Home, Kristine Kristiansen is a young woman deeply engaged with her family in Førde, in western Norway, before she immigrates to America in 1925 to join her husband, Fredrik, who had settled there in advance for business. She created a home in Illinois with Fredrik and their children, always with the expectation of returning to Norway someday. She takes language classes, finds community, and raises their daughters. She adjusts to electricity and other modern conveniences and experiences what it’s like for her family to have their own car. She’s truly created a home, infusing it with Norwegian charm with the curtains she sews from fabric she brought from Norway, preparing Norwegian meals, and offering hospitality to her family and guests. However, her longing for Norway remains. Whenever she inquires about returning to Norway, Fredrik has a reason why this isn’t the right time. Eventually, during a stay at a Norwegian American farm while Fredrik is off at work, Kristine comes to a realization. Among these relatives of Fredrik’s, she finds comfort in being among people who share a knowledge of the foods and culture of their heritage and an ease with the dual languages they share. The experience makes her homesick and also prompts her to think of how much she missed her husband. After receiving wisdom from one of the women, Kristine contemplates her situation in America.
She thought about Selma’s question. Why would she go to Norway? What would she find? Somehow she and Fredrik were both looking for more. With him, she had become aware of new people, new ways of doing things. Being together, seeking more with Fredrik had become a kind of home for her. She knew her role was not here doing what had always been done. What part of being at home is knowing how you fit in.Chossek
At the end of Kristine’s visit, when Fredrik comes to bring her and their daughters home, they have a simple yet revealing conversation.
“Was it a good visit, Kristine? Fredrik asked.Chossek
“Ja, it was, but I missed you, and I am anxious to get home,” she said.
“To what home, Kristine?” he asked sharply.
“To our home, yours and mine in Waukegan.”
Investigating a narrative
Indeed, Kristine manages to find home. Not in Norway, as she had always expected, but in America, as she and Fredrik build a home for themselves and their children, and for the generations to come. The author is the granddaughter of Kristine’s oldest child, Odny. Chossek crafted Kristine’s narrative through letters sent between Norway and America, Odny’s college reports, and stories told by relatives. Chossek describes in the afterward,
Each of us descendants knows part of the story; some details differ, but none of us has a full understanding of what it was to come to the United States in 1925 with a baby in tow, or to make a home and a living in Waukegan, Illinois.Chossek
The stories in this book are a narrative of how it may have been. The facts, names, places, and events are all as accurate as memories, written records, and photographs allow. The conversations, motivations, and feelings form the arc of Kristine’s transformation from naïve, bewildered newcomer to matriarch of her small family and leader in her church and community.
To think of Aleta having access to letters sent between Norway and America, of Kristine’s child’s college reports of the immigrant experience, etc.—that she had access to the materials that she did—what a gift for her! And what a gift that she created this book for her family, and also for the rest of us who can now experience an account of one woman’s experience of immigrating to America from Norway.
The value of stories
In 2009, when Grandma Agny was about to turn 93, I decided it was time to ask her if she’d begin telling me about her life. What was it like to live through the war and the occupation of Norway? To have a baby during that time? To later bury another baby? To leave home and country and family and start a new life in America? It was a sunny July Sunday morning in Seattle, and I was just about to leave the house to celebrate Grandma’s birthday with her and my parents. I was going to ask her if she would start telling me her stories. The phone rang. It was my mom. Grandma was gone. I was shocked by the loss and the grief stung all the more, as it was laced with regret that I hadn’t done this sooner. I’ll always wish I knew more about my family’s story. I used to daydream that I would happen upon a treasure trove of correspondence that would reveal what I missed. I am grateful, however, for writers such as Chossek who have the gift of such materials and the generosity to share them with the world. Chossek knows the value of heritage. As she writes in the afterward,
In 1962, I did now know how important visiting my mother’s birthplace with Grandma was to me and my identity. To stand in the room where my mother was born, to walk the path from Kristine’s girlhood home to the church, to have coffee with her friends, to hike in the mountains surrounding Førde, to listen to the waterfall, Huldfossen, was to experience my origin story rather than simply hear it.Chossek
That and future time spent in Norway gave meaning and shape to who I was becoming then and who I am today.
Many of the Norwegian Americans I have met over the years share a similar sentiment, and I suspect that this story will resonate with many, as it has for me.
Chossek, Aleta. Kristine, Finding Home: Norway to America. First edition. Waukesha, WI: Ten 16 Press, 2019.
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