O. E. Rölvaag, perhaps the best-known Norwegian American author, interpreted the immigrant experience and depicted the human cost, as well as the material benefits, of becoming an American. Rölvaag himself immigrated from Norway in 1896 when he was twenty years old. In the United States, he was able to obtain the education he had always desired, but he experienced the pain of separation from home and family and he knew that immigrants continue to feel like outsiders in their new country while at the same time they become estranged from the old.
The myth of the American frontier as a second Eden where people could start a new, more prosperous life lured many immigrants to settle there. This myth included the necessity of being reborn as a new person, of cutting all ties with the past. Rölvaag believed that this results in rootlessness and spiritual disintegration. Rather than a melting-pot society of bland uniformity, he advocated the preservation of the Norwegian language and culture to provide a sense of continuity for the immigrants and their descendants. This philosophy is everywhere apparent in his fiction.
Peder Victorious is the second novel in Rölvaag’s trilogy chronicling the Holm family. Giants in the Earth (1927), which covers events from 1873 to 1881, describes the struggles of Per and Beret Hansa, who are among the first to settle in Spring Creek in Dakota Territory. That novel concludes with Per’s death in a snowstorm. Peder Victorious picks up the story in 1885 and takes it through 1895, covering Peder’s childhood and youth. Peder is the youngest child of Per and Beret and the first child born in the Spring Creek settlement. By 1885, Spring Creek is no longer a frontier but an established community with churches and schools; more mundane cultural, social, and psychological conflicts have replaced the dramatic, mythical struggles of the first book. Their Fathers’ God (1931), which follows Peder into young adulthood, continues these themes.
Polarity and division are recurring images in Peder Victorious. During the time of the novel, Dakota Territory is divided into the states of South Dakota and North Dakota. St. Luke’s Lutheran Church is split and Bethel Congregation formed; the Holm family is separated when one son and his wife leave Spring Creek for Montana. The main emphasis, however, is on the internal conflicts of Peder and Beret, especially those resulting from the...
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