Friday, August 28, 2009

Their Fathers' God

Their Fathers' God by O. E. Rolvaag
Trygve M. Ager (Translator)
Trade paperback, 338 pages
University of Nebraska Press
originally published in 1931, this edition in 1983
ISBN-13: 9780803289116
very highly recommended

Susie Doheny, an Irish Catholic, and Peder Holm, a Norwegian Lutheran, fall in love and marry in South Dakota in the 1890s. Soon their marriage is tested by drought, depression, and family bickering. Susie believes they are being tested by their fathers' God.
Peder blames Susie for the timidity of her beliefs; Susie fears Peder's pride and skepticism. When political antagonism grows between the Norwegian and Irish immigrant communities, it threatens to split their marriage.
Against a backdrop of hard times, crisscrossed by Populists, antimonopolists, and schemers, Rölvaag brings the struggle of immigrants into the twentieth century. In Giants in the Earth the Holm family strained to wrest a homestead from the land. In Peder Victorious the American-born children searched for a new national identity, often defying the traditions their parents fought to uphold. In Their Fathers' God , Rölvaag's most soul-searching novel, the first-generation Americans enter a world of ruthless competition in the midst of scarcity.
My Thoughts:

Stop. If you haven't read the previous two books, Giants in the Earth and Peder Victorious and plan to in the future, do not read this review.
Their Fathers' Gods is, like Peder Victorious, a Norwegian novel translated into English thus, as Agar, the translator notes, some of the actual mood -art- of the original is lost. This is the last book Rolvaag wrote featuring the Holms family. In this novel he tackles the mixed marriage of Catholic Susie and Lutheran Peder, as well as the political antagonism between the two groups, Irish Catholic and Norwegian Lutheran, in South Dakota. What is surprising in many ways is how universal the themes in these last two Rolvaag novels have been. Even today we struggle with the question of immigrants becoming Americanized, especially in speaking English. While there are many mixed marriages of different faiths today, there is still an underlying hurdle that must be crossed for them to succeed. Once these different religious beliefs are woven together with opposing political views, with various clergy fully participating, the outcome is bound to be negative. In the end we are never told if Peder achieves either happiness or success. He has been truthfully told he will not have both in his life.
Very Highly Recommended for those reading all three Rolvaag books


No hope for rain to-night, either. opening

Pious people sought out their closets in secret and there, behind shut doors, sobbed for mercy from the lash of the Lord's wrath. At every Sunday service the shepherds entreated for rain. pg. 2

"All fooling aside. Haven't you heard about that crook who breezed into town the other day with an offer to punch a hole in the sky for us?"
"Ah-ha - it's Mr. Jewell's scalp you're after?"
"-And that the county is going to plank down seven hundred honest American dollars for letting him do it? Have you heard that, too?"
"Oh, he'll never get that much."
"Those seven hundred dollars will be added to your taxes," Peder continued, unhalted. pg. 9

"So you boys would like to see me strung up in order to save the county seven hundred dollars? Well, that shows a mighty fine public spirit, but it strikes me that the milk of human kindness in you is running kind of blue. The whole affair won't cost you, Peder, more than a few cents. Can't you afford that much when you realize the life of a neighbor is at stake?" pg. 13

"You take my word for it, any commissioner who dares to vote against the rainmaker to-morrow is simply gambling with the noose." pg. 14

Every place I go people pounce on me, asking me how the Nordlaning is getting along with his Irish wife. They all grim wickedly... want to know how it feels to be related to a lot of Catholics... how much the pope is taxing you... when you're joining in the war on the Protestants - " pg. 20

"Mr. Jewell cannot give us the faintest shadow of a guarantee, He's dishing up a lot of cheap talk. I make no bones about telling you that your decision is madness! This foolishness may cost our country seven times seven hundred dollars before were through with it. If this man could make rain fall whenever and wherever he pleased, he'd certainly be a member of the President's Cabinet!" pg. 47

"It's the first time I've ever seen grown-up people falling for anything so damn silly. And you" - his voice cracked - "you voted with them! You deserted us. Why didn't you say so last night?... But of course you had to side with your 'big-hearted' Father Williams, the chicken-headed leader of all the asses in this county!" pg. 49


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book tonight and was looking for other opinions on it. I loved this book. I read "The Emigrant" series by Moberg and saw how he was compared to Rolvaag so I read this trilogy. The last book I was able to relate to because my husband is Catholic (German) and I am Norwegian Lutheran. I was drawn in by Rolvaag colorful descriptions of life on the prairie and the changing times.

Lori L said...

It's always interesting to see timeless themes in literature. I appreciate Rolvaag because he's writing how it was rather than sugar coating history.

Anonymous said...

I find this a difficult novel to comment upon publicly. I was tremendously impressed by it. It was for me a griping, wonderful novel. Having read it, I personally can’t easily imagine the counterfactual of not having read it and thus possessing the enrichment I got from it. Nor can I imagine anyone else not wanting to go on to Their Father’s God if they had read and enjoyed Giants in the Earth and Peder Victorious.

Indeed, Their Father’s God was so griping on several occasions that I had to set it down and literally go out and skate around the rink at my nearby park to settle down enough to pick it up and start in again. I’ll note, however, that this is by no means a unique reaction that I had with this novel. It happens to me fairly frequently whenever I think a book’s characters are behaving really badly. Maybe as a reader I have a hyper-sensitivity that’s uncommon in the reading public. It wouldn’t surprise me.

I will also say that while I’m not of Norwegian ancestry—mostly my ancestry is from a closely related Scandinavian country, though—I tremendously identified with Peder Holm. Indeed, I even share some personal history with the fictional Peder. And that, too, may make me untypical enough to render my comments of little value to a larger reading audience.

The difficulty I have with commenting on this book publicly comes from the rawness of the conflict between the Irish and Norwegians portrayed in this novel. It would be considered as far from being ‘politically correct’ in our current society as I can imagine a novel being. Of course, the deep distrust and at times hatred by the Irish for the Norwegians is confined to a few of the novel’s characters. And, in fairness, we see in somewhat muted fashion some reciprocated distrust of the Irish by the Norwegians. And, finally, we have an Irishman and a Norwegian—though minor characters in the book—who are, and stay, close friends throughout the novel.

Even today—and this novel was set in the South Dakota of the 1890’s—it’s difficult for me to envision someone possessing a reasonably strong Irish identity and not taking some offense—and maybe even quite a bit—to this novel. Of course, the basis of this raw conflict between the Irish and Norwegians portrayed in this novel is the religious intolerance between them. Here, the Irish are more ‘in your face’ about the superiority of their God, but the Norwegians in their private, largely unspoken ways are no less accepting of the Catholicism of the Irish. And Father Williams and Reverend Gabrielsen are outlandish in their religious zeal and even fanaticism. Of course, this all gets played out tragically in the relationship between Peder Holm and Susie née Doheny.

I found myself asking: if even today this novel might make some uncomfortable, imagine how it was received at least by some in 1931 when it was published! To me, to have written and published such a novel then was nothing short of courageous. Especially, perhaps, in Minnesota and especially for someone like Rolvaag who held a professorship at St. Olaf College, then and now a highly respected institution. In passing, I note again its date of publication, 1931, was also the year of Rolvaag’s death.

After reading this wonderful book I stand in awe of Rolvaag’s craftsmanship as a novelist. He wrote a compelling novel with powerful themes that echo down through time to us today.


Lori L said...

Another great comment adding to the discussion of Rolvaag's work, Gestur. It really is a powerful novel with timeless themes.