The Emigrants Summary
Erik Foss came back to Norway after some time spent working in America. To the cramped, class-conscious farmers and laborers of his Norwegian countryside, he held out hope for a more free and generous life in the new country. Many resolved to join his party of emigrants to America.
There was Ola, the colonel’s hired boy. Ola had a way with people, especially with girls, and Else, the colonel’s daughter, looked on him with eager eyes. Ola, however, was poor, and the stories about him did not please the colonel. After his dismissal from the farm, Ola set fire to the barn. He spent a year in prison and came out in time to join the emigrants. Else came too, as Ola’s wife. There was Per Foll, a big, hulking man and his new wife, Anne, the most attractive girl in the parish, already carrying a baby who was to be born too soon after her marriage. There were Kal Skaret and Karen, a kindly and slow-moving couple. The tax collector took their only cow when they could not pay even the previous year’s taxes. There was Morten Kvidal, a skilled joiner.
When the steamer left, the little band sorrowed to leave Norway; but Erik was strong, and he knew the way and he had enough money to help them.
That first summer the emigrants reached Wisconsin. They stayed there during the bleak winter, and the men worked in the sawmills to add to their meager funds. Early the next spring, they started out across the prairie. Erik had been to the Red River Valley before; he had tested the soil and knew it was good. The settlers now had wagons and oxen, and all of their supplies.
Erik said they had arrived when they came to a vast level land covered with a six-foot stand of grass.
Kal took the quarter farthest to the west. There he swung his scythe in sweeping strokes. The children and Karen piled the fodder, enough to feed a cow all winter! Now he would plow. Morten took no heed of the buffalo grass; he set his great breaking plow and turned it under. They built their homes from the grass, too, piling squares of turf for their sod houses.
That summer there was drought, and the wheat crop was poor. Ola went into town with one of his loads and gambled and drank up all of his money. Without the help of the others, Ola and Else would never have survived the winter. During a blizzard, Erik’s feet were frostbitten while he hunted his strayed stock. When gangrene set in, Morten made the long trip to town on skis; but he returned too late with medicine for the sick man.
After Erik’s death, the leadership of the small band fell to Morten. Good times and bad followed.
Per thought long and bitterly about Anne, for he could never forget that his firstborn boy had come into the world too soon after his marriage. When Morten’s young brother visited his house too frequently, Per began to roam the prairie. They finally had to tie him and take him to the madhouse, leaving Anne with her children and a sense of sin.
Although well established, Morten felt compelled to go back to Norway. When he returned to Dakota, he brought with him a wife, Bergitta, Anne’s sister. He became an agent for the new railroad. He said that the people should have their own bank and grain elevators so that they would not be at the mercy of speculators. The Norwegians became Americans. At a party, they put up an American flag beside the Norwegian banner.
Kal and Karen built outbuildings of wood, and each son took up another quarter. Before long Kal’s fields stretched to the horizon, and he had to ride from one wheat planting to the other. When the steam thresher came, an army of laborers piled up the mounds of grain; it poured too fast to cart away. In his machine shed, in a tiny strong room, Kal stored wheat, so that his family would never be hungry. Under his bed, in his emigrant chest, he kept his money. He and Karen were proud on the day their son came back from school in St. Louis and preached in their own church.
Morten grew old. He still acted for the railroad; he ran the bank; he was elder of the church; he put up buildings for the growing town. Bergitta died. A lamp exploded in Morten’s face, blinding him. Now his grandson read to him. The old man thought of Norway often. He went back, blind and old, to his home. His people were dead; only the old land remained. It must be like that, he realized. The old settlers are part Norwegian always, but their children belong to the new world.