A history that chronicles the challenges of a group of immigrants who traveled from northern Europe to the New World.
Walstad’s (Ecology of the Planted Aquarium, 1999) ancestors were part of a wave of immigration to America in the mid-19th-century. Their new lives were still full of challenges—the author’s relations from Sweden, for example, spent their first winter, “a bitterly cold one, huddled together in a drafty shack” in Minnesota—but they persevered, and most of them eventually achieved a slice of the American dream. In this book, Walstad uses a remarkable array of sources, including diaries, interviews, and family photos, to vividly portray her people, piecing together not only a family chronicle but also a timely social history of the immigration experiment. It initially travels through the Old World countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, where the author says that a “declining national economy, hard labor, and 10 children” may have sent her great-great-grandparents “to early graves.” He tells of how one Danish relative, a 28-year-old spinster, “must have hoped that emigrating would increase her marital prospects, for three of her sisters had found husbands in America.” After the author’s great-grandfather John Walstad, an alcoholic who had deserted his wife and children, died of a heart attack in Iowa, his eulogy stated only: “Thus ended a life ruined by whiskey.” Perhaps most compelling are the author’s dissections of the fraught dynamics on her mother Margie’s side of the family: after Margie’s mother died of tuberculosis, her sister was adopted by an aunt and joined a household that “simmer[ed] with distrust and resentment.” Tracking the various branches of the author’s family tree may be a little daunting for some readers, but she skillfully adds detours into various other subjects, such as the scourge of tuberculosis—which claimed the lives of several of her relatives—and the Los Angeles oil rush that began in the 1890s.
Walstad brings a keen eye for social history to her family chronicle.