ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Norwegian Immigrants

Recently, the Occupier of the White House has been quoted as saying…well, that other countries aren’t as nice as Norway. He thinks we should get some clean, polite white people who speak English to immigrate instead of those pesky, poor, black and brown people we seem to attract.

I know! Let’s have a story!

It’s 1902, and 20 year old Klara Jermina Elsina Sorensen is emigrating, to Sioux Rapids, Iowa. She will travel with her 19 year old brother Arthur and her 17 year old sister Hilda.

The ticket for all three cost $168. Where did it come from?

Klara’s father was Elias Sorensen. And his sister Petrika had already emigrated to America with her husband. They had four kids and were doing well, so they invited others in the family to join them. Petrika was 15 years older than Elias and had left for America when he was still quite young, but she and her husband and other family members gathered money to bring Elias’ family to Iowa.

Chain migration.

Once the tickets arrived, they sailed from Tromso to Trondheim. Trondheim was the largest city they had visited; they were met by agents for the shipping company. Their baptismal certificates would be checked before they signed the emigrant book at the police station. Arthur, who was too young for military service, presented a document from the local commissioner.

From Trondheim it was four days to Hull, in England, where they waited in a warehouse until the next train arrived to take them to Liverpool. The food would have been plain, but ample. I can’t tell if they were allowed to leave the warehouse. The local authorities in Hull were eager to move them on as fast as possible.

In Liverpool, they might have waited several more days to board the ship for Philadelphia. During their wait, they would stay in boarding houses (paid for by the shipping company) and answer questions for going to America. Questions like, “Are you a polygamist?”

Subtle, huh?

At the time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, were controversial. In particular, their embrace of the practice of polygamy, which had kept Utah from becoming a state for many years. I’ll include a link below, but to get to the point, the church did not disavow polygamy until 1904.

Meanwhile, there had been few immigrants from Scandinavia until the mid-nineteenth century. When the first Mormon missionaries went into the world, they made large numbers of converts in Scandinavia. These folks wanted to go to Salt Lake City. It wasn’t really a religious test, except that it was. Plural marriage was why the U.S. Government and much of nineteenth century America didn’t care for Mormonism; they thought it was destroying the social fabric, ruining family values, inviting anarchy. Think gay marriage, only with more hoopskirts.

They swore they were not polygamists. They were Lutherans. They didn’t care much about religion, because in Scandinavia as in most of the world by then free practice of religion was widespread. Especially if you belonged to the dominant religion. So, they got on the ship and sailed third class to Philadelphia.

This would have been in slightly better conditions than the old “steerage” class for earlier immigrants. It involved communal living space, limited sanitary facilities, and shelves to sleep on. And seasickness. Lots and lots of seasickness. And when they arrived, they were in Philadelphia. They didn’t see the Statue of Liberty.

They saw something even better. Though, not from the ship.

Independence Hall. The place where America was born, one sweltering summer in 1776. And then another one in 1787.

I’ve written about this before. Independence Hall is practically a religious experience for me. I’m no doubt projecting this onto my great-grandmother; they were probably just looking for a bath by the time they got to Philadelphia. They were met by cousins, older men they’d never met before. And a few days later, after a medical exam, they got on another train to Sioux Rapids, Iowa.

Now, why would a person go through all that? We think of the immigrant experience as people looking for freedom: of speech, of assembly, of carrying loaded weapons. I’m sure all that sounded good, but they had a much more immediate reason.

The place they were from was a tiny village called Dafjord, Norway. A place now mostly known for gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights. Reindeer. Re-enactors of traditional Sami culture. In other words, tourism. Even today it’s a pain in the neck to get there. By all accounts, they were a farming family. They might have had sheep or goats as well as growing food. But it’s about 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, where the growing season was short. And in a place without industry other than fishing, it’s not hard to understand that what they were really looking for was economic opportunity.

I have been told there’s a letter from their father, which arrived in Iowa shortly after they did. I haven’t seen it and anyway it’s in Norwegian. He detailed the hardships of the rest of the family; that the crops had failed and it was coming on cold weather. In April 1903, at the age of 54, he died.

The three siblings went to work at once. They paid back the $168 to their cousins, and then they started saving to bring their mother and the remaining siblings to America.

Things went along fine until 1917, which is when America entered World War I. Back in Norway, this might not have had much impact on them. But in their new country? Nativism had one of its periodic surges. And this time, it was directed at the political beliefs of recent immigrants. Many people thought that Scandinavians were Socialists.

Klara’s marriage had already been planned by her mother, who had brought a man from the old country to marry her. Instead, she married a native-born citizen. The children weren’t taught to speak Norwegian, because they had to assimilate. All that many of them knew about life in Norway was that Mama couldn’t pronounce the letter J.

They were poor. They came to America through the help of relatives. They were regarded with suspicion for religious and political beliefs, based solely on where they were from. But within a few generations, they looked just like everybody else.

Not because they were deserving. Because they were white.

The meaning of the immigrant experience isn’t, “I got mine, too bad for you.” It’s, “My family came for something better. And there’s a place at our table for you, too.” In a country of immigrants, we have to do better; we have to be the people our grandparents dreamed we would be. Healthy, strong, and…

Welcoming to the stranger.

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Retreat! Retreat!

No, not from Trump not being Hitler. He still isn’t. And, as my brother put it, this isn’t 1930s Germany either. Though I would like to point out that new scholarship in the field (which I’m reading, sadly) suggests that Hitler wasn’t possible without the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of 1930s and before Germany as well as the willing collaboration of the common people. So. Let’s say Trump still doesn’t equal Hitler, but Trump might equal fascism.

No, what I’m really posting about is the retreat I went on last weekend. Specifically, the RMFW retreat at the Franciscan Retreat Center in Colorado Springs.

People always seem to come back from this kind of thing relaxed and refreshed and ready to keep plugging away, and I certainly am all of those things. It was great to take a mental break from all the obligations that sometimes seem to make up my whole life. Three times a day, I went to a dining room, and someone brought food I didn’t cook. There were plans and activities and talks and classes and, more than that, really wonderful people of all experience levels at writing. I’ve resolved that when I’m doing critiques I’m going to redouble my efforts at being encouraging. It was a little confusing because a few writers had brought brand-new, first drafts; others brought material that was all but finished, so it was hard to know how to be helpful since I didn’t know which were which. Anyway, we’ve all got different reasons for embarking on this journey in the first place, and being encouraging and complimentary is definitely part of being helpful, just like pointing out comma splices and run-on sentences.

I think the part I like best about going to these things is how easy it is to talk about the work and not sound like a pretentious jerk. It’s okay to be a kind of bookish introvert (although I’m 50/50 on the introvert/extrovert scale every time I take one of those surveys, and that’s been true since I was a little kid) and to talk about “This is what I’m stuck on” and “I need help with this” or even “I’m really good at,” which for me is and always has been characters. I can also be open that I try in my own writing to be an original, fresh voice, but still in the confines of the genre. For this New Adult project, for instance, the characters do tend to be snarky and judgmental, but it feels age appropriate. While there’s a strong romantic subplot, that’s not what the book is really about (New Adult books tend to be romances). But, rather than the usual five or so characters in a lot of New Adult, I’ve got about fifteen more-than-background characters, and the story is set firmly in the Greek world. Most New Adult work doesn’t even acknowledge sororities and fraternities, unless it’s to provide an easy villain.

The best takeaway information I got from this conference was from the inimitable Courtney Miller-Callihan, who is an agent. She told me that her clients are finding New Adult sales very difficult, and that I should plan to self-publish the What You Stand For books. I’ve kicked that idea around for a long time, so it didn’t come as a huge shock, but I had always planned to try to sell them traditionally first. Now I know not to waste time on that route, get the books finished, and start selling them.

What a steep learning curve there is in this business! Still, the other task I got done was to go through the manuscript of Book 2 and wrestle it into a plot. I wrote Book 2 during NaNoWriMo this year and thought it was awful, but when I went through it in Colorado it really isn’t that bad. Some of it’s even funny. Who knows, I could be finished with that one and drafting Book 3 in November, and putting up What You Stand For by January?

I thought I wanted the prestige of traditional publishing, and I still do for the Scouts project. But publishing is changing; writing is changing. I hope the quality of the work is going to help sell it, but honestly, I never started doing this for the money (if I did, I’d be an accountant). I started doing it so I could tell the stories. And, if this is how you get the story out, this is how you get the story out.

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Embracing the writer you really are

Colorado Gold with Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers!  I laughed!  I cried!  I drank!  I met lots of really cool people!

Including an editor!  WHO WANTS ME TO SEND HIM THE BOOK!

So that was pretty exciting, but…let’s just say the rest of the weekend my interactions with him suggested that he wouldn’t like the book I was sending.  He told me that he didn’t see a lot of New Adult that wasn’t romance but he was intrigued by the sorority girls being the heroes.  So, after a whole lot of soul-searching and existential questions, like “Is it still art if everyone’s structures are the same?” and “Was it even art in the first place?” and a talk by William Kent Krueger who said that he was a much better writer when he stopped trying to be Ernest Hemingway…

I’ve decided that I’m a romance writer.  Or that this is a romance story, anyway.  Which I have to be if I want to write about this age group–and get the book into the hands of readers.  Because honestly, in the first drafts of this book the romantic story kept trying to take over.  Which doesn’t mean that I was falling into plot traps, or that I wasn’t as good with my characters as I should be.  It just means that I wanted to write the romance all along.

All my musings led me back to the question of why I wanted to be a writer at all, and why I wanted to write this particular story.  It was to tell the story, and it was to talk to young women.  Not in a preachy sort of way, but in a meeting of equals way.  The same way I parent, you know?  Parenting is a two-way street; it’s not something I do to them, it’s something parent and kid do together.  It’s not about imposing my needs on them; it’s about recognizing their needs and teaching them to be civilized people too.  I used to be a young woman.  And now that I’m a less-young woman, I want to explore the themes of making mistakes, and learning to trust again (including yourself), and in the end being who you really are.

So that means for the next few weeks I’m restructuring this manuscript, adding back scenes that I thought were too romance-oriented, and writing two serious (gulp!) sex scenes.  I’ve already written some serious foreplay scenes with these two, so how hard can it be to get everyone’s clothes off?

I know.  I just have to jump in and do it.

At least my shoes were comfortable this time.

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Rambles and Travels

Since my last post, nothing happened!

No, of course that’s not true.  I went to my parents’ 50th anniversary party, saw a lot of people I haven’t seen in 25 years, had a birthday, took my son on his first college visit, and had a nightmare flight on the way home.

I should warn that there are some things I find really boring myself, and one of them is the minutiae of the difficulties of travel.  Let’s just say that my flight out of Nashville was delayed, so I was late getting to Dallas and missed the Santa Fe connection.  I ended up going to Albuquerque, where the agent took almost an hour to set me up with vouchers for a hotel, taxi, and shuttle to Santa Fe.  Then this morning the shuttle was booked so I had to rent a car to get my children to where my car was parked in Santa Fe.  So, I rented a car for an hour for about half the amount I paid for having a car for a week at my parents’!

I’ve been trying hard to talk about writing as a job and not as a hobby since I left Jackson.  People who’ve known me only here in Los Alamos are a bit surprised when I say that I’ve been at a writers’ conference.  I suppose I seem too practical, too grounded in the reality of routine, to be an artist.  People who’ve known me for a while or are brand-new acquaintances are interested and ask me where I blog.  Today I met the lady who is teaching my son’s drivers’ ed class and she is a writer.  We talked shop a little, and it felt natural.  Normal.  I’m starting to feel like a writer who writes.

Speaking of, make sure to check out my “The Beginning” page today.  I’ll be adding the revisions I’ve made to the original post from a few weeks ago.  I thought I’d leave the original up so that anyone who is interested can see what my process looks like.  And later I’ll be digging into Scrivener to learn how to use it.  Before I went out of town I made it halfway through the tutorial, but now I don’t remember what I learned.  Hopefully it will all come back to me as I’m working.

Taking my son back to Sewanee was enlightening.  When my husband and I were there, we weren’t exactly slumming, but it was definitely less clean, shiny, and state of the art than it is now.  Night Study in the library, which always smelled like a thousand lit cigarettes, has been replaced by a 24 hour computer lab.  Students now need their IDs to access not just the dining halls but their own rooms, where I never locked my door even one time (although it must be admitted that this was because the keys were bulky and sometimes got stuck).  The gravel paths that ate our shoes have been paved.  The dining hall is open and food is accessible all the time.  Printing is free.  95% of freshmen return for their sophomore year, which made me wonder if the University is working harder to keep them and better able to help those in financial need or if admissions are just that much more selective.

One piece that I’m glad to see still operates is that the admissions counselor talked about the network, and Sewanee as a family.  I demonstrated that myself; our tour guide was talking about being a biochemistry major and at the end of the tour I gave him my husband’s contact information.  Because it’s not just about being in school, it’s about what happens next.  Buck’s own mentors have retired and passed away and the new professors in the department don’t really know him, so they don’t put students in contact with him.

I was surprised that our tour guide didn’t talk about the honor code as a way of life, although my son said his did talk about it.  I knew a couple of people who were thrown out on honor code violations.  The honor code really was ingrained and was a large part of who we were.  And are.  Although I wonder sometimes how much of it we already held when we came to Sewanee in the first place.

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Ever been to Jackson?

Wow, is all I can say.

I know I’m supposed to be writing about writing–and I will be, once the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference gets underway.  The kinds of things I’m planning to post:  what do people wear?  How formal is the event?  How are the classes?  And, should I be marketing What You Stand For as adult or New Adult fiction?

But Jackson is so overwhelming.

To catch up a little:  we left from Los Alamos on Saturday and drove up to Aspen.  I didn’t like the condo in Snowmass.  It was expensive and it was hard to unload the car there.  Plus there were very few options for feeding kids in Snowmass.  Next time I’m bringing breakfast AND dinner food.  However, the next day we went out rafting with Aspen Whitewater (Paige and Chris) and had an amazing time!  Mom enjoyed it too, but forgot to lean into the boat when we went over the rapids.  So, she and I fell out of the boat.  I still had a great time and it was so much fun!  Also I had some thoughts about the symbolism of learning to paddle in sync.  The most interesting part of that is that I went for the most independent paddler in the boat (15 yr old son), because I reasoned he wouldn’t be trying to pace anyone else.  Funny to think that it’s not necessarily the leader that people follow!

That night we made it to Pinedale, where we stayed in the very cute Log Cabin Motel.  It was scrupulously clean, definitely from another era.  We LOVED it.  We got up that morning and trekked out to the CCC ponds looking for a mother and baby moose with no luck, but we did see several beavers, birds, and thousands of butterflies.  In the afternoon we drove on into Jackson.

I’m overwhelmed by how beautiful it is here.  The condo has crappy views but the mountains somehow dominate.  After we moved into the condo we went up the free tram to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, where we sat out on the deck and ate appetizers for dinner.  Then back to the condo, Mom and I went to the grocery store, and back to the condo for a good night’s sleep.

Then today Yellowstone.  Which I will attempt to write about tomorrow.

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