Book Review: Unto a Good Land

Five StarsuntoagoodlandVilhelm Moberg’s Unto a Good Land continues the story of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson’s band of Swedish emigrants from Småland, southern Sweden, from New York where the group landed at the end of the first book in this series to Washington County in Minnesota, near Stillwater. The group make their way by riverboat, train, steamboat, and oxcart through northern New York, the Great Lakes, and through the upper midwest by water and then to their final destination at Taylor’s Falls by ox cart and on foot. For only a portion of the journey, until they reached Detroit, did they have a Swedish-speaking guide.

Moberg’s descriptions of the challenges the group faced–to communicate with others, to find food and other essentials with the little money they had, and to discover what they must do to claim land in order to establish themselves–effectively put the reader in the settlers’ shoes. I felt the hunger and pain Kristina felt when she had little to give her children to eat on the journey. But the challenges didn’t end even when Karl Oskar found land for them to settle. The group arrived so late in the summer, there wasn’t enough growing season left for crops. There was only time to build shelter to protect the family from the cold of the winter just ahead.

The core group of settlers who had gone through so many hardships together did not remain together once they reached Minnesota. Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, and his friend, Arvid, set out for California, leaving Karl Oskar’s family behind with one fewer farmhand to break up the land. The different images each of the immigrants had of America’s promise began to separate, rather than unite, them.

Even those who chose to remain to claim land to farm in Minnesota ended up at a distance from one another, which brought another challenge, loneliness.

Moberg’s story continues in two more volumes, Settlers: Book 3, and Last Letter Home: Book 4 . The first volume in the series, The Emigrants, details the conditions of life in Sweden that led to the Småland group deciding to make the long and dangerous journey by sea to New York.

Moberg intended the four volumes to be read as one continuous story. Having read two of them, I am impressed that Moberg manages to tell a complete story in each, allowing the reader to begin with either The Emigrants or Unto a New Land without the feeling that something has been left out. Nonetheless, I plan to read all four books to see how the story ends for each of the original emigrants.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family Saga
Print Length: 412 pages
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press; 1 edition
Publication Date: June 30, 2009
Original Publication Date: 1952

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Book Review: The Emigrants

Four stars
theemigrantsEight adults, each for their own reasons, reach the point they feel abandoning their homes in Sweden in favor of enduring a treacherous sea voyage to New York is the only way to find a dignified life for themselves and their eight children. The sixteen featured emigrants joined more than sixty other courageous souls on a journey they knew almost nothing about for a new life in a land they had only heard of. They knew no one who had made the journey before. Many among them lost their faith, and some even their lives, before the small ship arrived in New York harbor.

Moberg’s The Emigrants brings the bleak conditions of mid-nineteenth century Scandinavia to life, uncovering the near starvation facing families whose ancestral homes had been divided into plots so small they no longer could support the same, or in many cases an even larger, number of people. While not mentioned in Moberg’s work, mortality rates in Sweden began declining in the latter half of the seventeenth century which contributed to the challenges. Intolerance of divergent forms of worship, societal shaming of non-conforming individuals, and unhappy marriages also contributed to the motivation of those earliest pioneers seeking a better life in North America. The first half of the novel painted a richly detailed landscape of the conditions, especially of the hunger the children faced and the pain those conditions brought to the adults who could not overcome the conditions that brought on the hunger.

The last half of the novel, describing the sea voyage and the disease and unhealthy conditions the travelers had to endure, was equally well detailed but felt a bit longer than I thought necessary, the reason I rated the book four stars, not five.

Having already read O.E. Rolvaag’s Norwegian trilogy beginning with Giants in the Earth, I was eager to compare The Emigrants to it. Moberg’s work is like a prequel to Rolvaag’s work, and since Sweden and Norway were ruled by the same monarch during the timespan of both author’s tales, I felt the circumstances that prompted both Norwegian and Swedish emigration were likely very similar. For anyone who wants to know more about the emigration/immigration of ancestors from Scandinavia, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.

  • Print Length: 404 pages
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press; Revised ed. edition (July 24, 2009)
  • Publication Date: July 24, 2009
  • Genre: Literature & Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction