Among a shipload of migrant workers traveling from Sweden to the Danish island of Bornholm in the spring of 1877 are Lasse Karlsson, a Swedish farmhand who is old before his time, and his eight-year-old son, Pelle. Like other Swedes who travel to Bornholm, Lasse Karlsson is enticed from his homeland by the relatively high wages paid on the Danish island. Lasse and his son are hired to look after cattle on a large farm on the island. Their life there is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The farm is a dreary one. The owner leaves the management of the place to a bailiff, drinks heavily, and seeks after women. Pelle’s greatest happiness is going out to look after the cattle in the common pastures. After a time, he finds a playmate in Rud Pihl, the farmer’s illegitimate son, who lives in a shack with his mother near the edge of the farm. For the elder Karlsson, life is not easy; he is old and weak, and the rest of the laborers make him the butt of jokes. Even so, the man and his son stay at Stone Farm for several years, since it is easier to remain there than to look for a new location.
The second winter finds Pelle in school, for the authorities insist that he attend. Though he is nine years old, he has never been formally educated. He is the only Swede among more than twenty Danish children. Gradually, however, Pelle makes a place for himself and even becomes a leader among his schoolmates.
After two years, Pelle is confirmed. Everyone now considers him capable of taking care of himself. Realizing that his father is content where he is, the boy decides to leave the farm by himself. Early one morning, he sets out toward the little town that is the chief city of the island. While trudging along the road, Pelle meets a farmer who has known him for some time and who gives him a ride into town. When Pelle confides to him that he is on his way to look for work, the farmer introduces him to a shoemaker who accepts Pelle as an apprentice.
Master Andres is an easy master but, even so, the six-year apprenticeship is not easy. The journeyman under whom Pelle works is a grouchy person who taunts Pelle for his rural upbringing. Pelle is not sure what he will do once his apprenticeship is over, for he sees that many shoemakers are out of work and that machine-made shoes are slowly taking the place of the handmade variety.
In the last year of Pelle’s apprenticeship, Master Andres dies, and the business is sold. Rather than finish out his time with a new master, Pelle...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)