The moving story of the difficulties of transplanted national loyalties forms the basis of Johan Bojer’s THE EMIGRANTS. The novel is carefully constructed, carrying the principal characters through their lives, from beginnings in Norway to old age in America. Along the way, the characters grow and change as the new land they have adopted is equally transformed and developed. The author begins with a precise delineation of the social structure of nineteenth century Norway, illustrating the many varying reasons that the people have for emigrating. Some want to escape local scandals, others hope to overcome poverty, some are possessed by ambition, many desire to escape what they consider unfair class distinctions.
The subtle psychological transformations among the settlers are sensitively portrayed. From the beginning of the new life, a growing sense of community binds the emigrants together. The relationships among them change; people who had nothing to do with one another in the old country become friends, and social distinctions dissolve. The new land affects the settlers in different ways; to some, the flatness of the land is depressing after the mountains of Norway; other find the work to build a settlement and a new life more difficult than they anticipated. Karen Skaret could adjust only after becoming convinced that a Norwegian brownie had emigrated with them.
The trials of the life on the prairie are dramatically portrayed; the breathless account of the prairie fire that nearly destroys the settlement is a masterpiece of narrative writing. Through the many disasters and years of labor, however, the settlers cling to their visions of the future. The construction of the first church becomes a touching symbol of their success. Yet, they never forget the old country; they seem to possess two souls, as Morten Kvidal says, one Norwegian and the other American. This double vision gives a rich poetry to the book and a subtle poignancy, combined with the joy of the settlers’ triumph.