Book week: 'Vikings in the Attic'

Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America by Eric Dregni, published by the University of Minnesota Press. 

It's become a cliche, the whole Minnesotan-Scandinavian thing. Yah, sure, uff da, you betcha, and yes, there are still restaurants (and a good many church dinners this time of year) that serve lutefisk. Stoicism. Farming. Hard work. Bland, bland, bland. Except for that lye-soaked fish.

Eric Dregni has a different view, one backed up by extensive research. These settlers were far from dull. Their unimaginably horrific journeys to get here didn't immediately result in gaining the golden opportunities they expected; there were territory battles with the railroad barons, the government, and Native Americans; sod houses provided shelter, along with the joy of rattlesnakes slithering through the walls; brutally hard work all summer was required if they were to have any chance of surviving the winter. Not surprisingly, there are surviving letters from immigrants to families back in Scandinavia, urging them to stay put and battle the famine that was going on there at the time rather than face the daunting odds in the Midwest.

It wasn't just the rural areas that were tough, as detailed in one Dane's description of Minneapolis: "I have never seen such horrible filth as in this city. Thousands of loads of manure and household trash are piled up in the yards, and some even in the streets. If a person has to remove some of it due to lack of space, he simply throws it in the Mississippi River, which provides the city's drinking water. The bodies of dead dogs and cats lie in the streets by the hundreds."

Well, that certainly puts a little littering into perspective, doesn't it?

Dregni's done his homework, and this book is in turns startling and funny. It's packed full of vintage photos as he explores nearly every aspect of the Scandinavian experience. What exactly is egg coffee? Or even more appetizingly, potato coffee? What's the deal with the Kensington Runestones? Who was that crazy Norwegian that gave a speech at Carleton College titled, "A Play for Cannibalism?" Did these stoic people really get riled up by politics? (Quick answer: oh, boy, did they ever.) Weren't they prim and proper? (Not according to a visitor who reported some very unseemly behavior by milkmaids in haylofts.) Was Lutheranism really that important? And what's with all the festivals?

This is a hugely enjoyable book that has plenty of history decked out in entertaining fashion. And you know what? I don't think you have to have Scandinavian heritage to appreciate it.

My thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with a review copy.

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    Amy Rea's picture
    Amy Rea

    Flyover Land , by Amy Rea, is about the best of Minnesota, and why you shouldn't just fly over.